Goods stolen during the war, thirty years of mobilization

In The Museum disappeared. Investigation into the looting of works of art in France by the Nazis, published by Editions Gallimard in 1995, Hector Feliciano highlighted a status little known even in museum institutions: that of the “National Recovery Museums” (MNR), these works of which the Louvre, Orsay, or provincial museums are the “holders precarious”, awaiting restitution to their legitimate owners. The cultural property stolen by the Nazis was unthinkable before the Puerto Rican journalist, then correspondent in Paris for the Washington Post, devotes part of his book to it. They are only about fifteen pages, at the end of a work patiently retracing the fate of major collections during the German occupation in France, but they had a resounding response. “The work marked the beginning of a new period, after that of the restitution of the immediate post-war period and then oblivion during the Cold War. Hector Feliciano contributed very strongly to launching this period,” recalls David Zivie, head of the Mission for Research and Restitution of Cultural Property Looted between 1933 and 1945, in introduction to the meeting with Hector Feliciano organized on February 28 as part of the “Looted Heritage” seminar held at the Institute national art history (INHA) for several years (1).

It was in front of a packed amphitheater that the journalist returned to his investigation on this occasion, which is part of the context of emerging interest in the academic field in the question of Nazi spoliations. Thus Laurence Bertrand-Dorléac, then a young researcher who had just defended a thesis on art under the Occupation; the American historian Lynn H. Nicholas, who published in 1995 The Plunder of Europe (Threshold) ; and the journalist Philippe Sprang (former contributor to Arts Journal, died in 2023) are putting the subject of stolen works of art back on the agenda. Apart from these initiatives, there was no “nothing, nothing on the subject, testifies Hector Feliciano. There was no Internet, the book by Rose Valland (The Art Front: defense of French collections, 1939-19451961) was exhausted, and they told me little bits of things. » When echoes of stolen paintings kept in national collections reach him, he imagines that they are a few “crusts”.“At first, I didn’t really understand. For the families, there was the idea that it was a closed chapter,” he recalls.

Question the families

In his work, Hector Feliciano highlights the importance of the intersection between human sources and documents, the latter often being inaccessible. It was in the National Archives in Washington that he discovered a mine of information, duplicates of reports sent to the Americans by the French and British intelligence services, and lost in a mountain of 13 million photographed documents. In France, Hector Feliciano manages to circumvent the refusals of the National Archives and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by going through the dispossessed families, legitimate in demanding consultation of the reports on the works found at the Liberation. “The families didn't want to talk to me too much, I had to show them that I wasn't a treasure hunter. At first, in my naivety, I did not realize the importance of the subject for them. It's not like losing a pair of shoes, we project a lot of things onto art.” he relates. Finally, his interviews with ex-conservatives, whose speech was released upon their retirement, complete this accumulation of sources: “I got a lot of information from (the writer) René Bazin or (from the historian and curator) René Huyghe”, he notes.

Hector Feliciano, The museum disappearedfirst edition 1995, Folio History edition 2012.

© Gallimard

At the end of 1995, the result of this investigative work was published by the small publisher Austral. On the cover is theAstronomer by Vermeer (see ill.), a treasure stolen by the Nazis from the collection of Édouard de Rothschild, and which was to join the great museum that Hitler planned to build in his hometown of Linz in Austria. Returned to the baron in 1945, then given to the Louvre by his family in 1983, the painting today shows no visible trace of this history. Except, on the reverse of the canvas, the stamp of a swastika: like a symbol, this stigma of spoliation strikes the lower right corner of the work reproduced on the cover. But the revelation of the troubled past that haunts French collections clashes with current events: “It came out during the transport strikes (from November 1995), I thought the book was dead! » Far from being dead, the work in fact shook the world of museum conservation, taken by surprise, as recalled by Didier Schulmann, then curator at the Center Pompidou, who came to respond to the journalist during the INHA seminar: “In museums, when we learned about Hector's book, we were in ignorance of these questions. Our older leaders knew more but didn't talk about it. We were unaware of the archives of the Artistic Recovery Commission, we were unable to reconstruct things, and in a logic of defending the collections. What amazed us was to see that Hector Feliciano had reconstructed a map of the looting through families. The story (from the gallery owner) Paul Rosenberg, for example, we knew nothing about it. »

Conservatives on the defensive

Following this publication, the French press became more interested in a subject that it previously addressed sporadically: within the daily The world, Emmanuel de Roux and Philippe Dagen are leading in tandem an investigation into these stolen paintings, which French museum institutions regularly try to integrate into their collection despite their status as “precarious holder” until the legitimate owners are identified – status recalled in 1992 by the Department of Justice to conservatives. Coming as a listener to the INHA seminar, the art critic Philippe Dagen evokes a “conservative property reflex which was fierce”. “The argument of the French Museums service was that all of this was very complicated, whereas a pair of journalists who were not really specialized could quickly pull out files and point out works. »

For Hector Feliciano, the immediate fallout from the work was not the most pleasant: an unexpected tax audit – “great coincidence”, he smiled thirty years later – then a lawsuit for defamation brought by the family of the gallery owner Georges Wildenstein, whose The Museum disappeared describes the opaque role during the German occupation. “I was compared to (Robert) Faurisson, it was incredible! “, he remembers bitterly: after five years of proceedings, the family will be dismissed in the Court of Cassation.

The effects of this spotlight due to Hector Feliciano, Lynn H. Nicholas and Philippe Sprang are gradually being felt in museums, first across the Atlantic: “In France and in Europe, this was a political decision. At first, restitutions were easier in the United States because the museums are private. Today the trend has been reversed, because the political decision has been taken, but in the United States every private museum is fighting against restitution. analyzes the journalist. Thirty years after exposing the “Loch Ness monster” to broad daylight, he welcomes the developments in a museum environment, which has completely integrated the question of restitution and made the search for provenance one of its priorities. “This history of stolen art formed and prepared the environment for other restitutions of cultural property, such as those from former colonies. It was a great joy for me to see that these two topics overlapped”rejoices Hector Feliciano, who nevertheless still notes some blind spots in the research on looted property, such as the looting of political opponents and freemasons, or the difficult projects of books and furniture.

(1) The seminar sessions “Heritage plundered during the period of Nazism, 1933-1945. International provenance research” are broadcast on the INHA YouTube channel.

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