2018 saw the launch of a new exhibition at the Louvre but the permanent installation’s aim wasn’t to draw more tourists through the doors. On display in two specially designated rooms, were over 30 unclaimed works of art plundered by the Nazis during the Second World War. The exhibition was an attempt to find their lawful owners. Two years on and there’s a new chapter in the story of the Louvre and Nazi looted art.
The Louvre and Musées Nationaux Récupération (MNR)
The French government’s inventory of looted art, known as the Musées Nationaux Récupération, lists work yet to be restituted. The MNR works at the Louvre include paintings by Renoir, Manet and Bonnard amongst others.
Art expert Emmanuelle Polack, hired earlier this month by the Louvre, has been tasked with identifying acquisitions purchased during the Vichy regime. It has taken her just three weeks to determine the origin of 10 paintings in the collection. Polack specialises in the art market during the occupation of World War II.
A Slow Restitution
The paintings belonged to Parisian Jewish lawyer and collector Armand Dorville. Amidst the looting, seizing of works and Aryanization of the art world, his collection was sold at a Nice auction in 1942. The Louvre’s then curator, René Huyghe acquired a number of works from Dorville’s collection at the auction. They’ve been at the Louvre ever since.
The Dorville family’s restitution request is ongoing. It’s a long process. Polack will continue working with the Louvre to identify the provenance of other works held there. Nearly seventy five years since the end of the war, restitution is shamefully slow. The reluctance to return seized property is a painful tale that has reverberated throughout Europe since 1945.
In my early twenties, I worked in Poland. Within the grounds of my boss’ ostentatious chalet style house was a modest, single story, grey stone house. Marta, a woman in her seventies lived there. The house had been seized from her family during the war along with the surrounding land. As Kraków expanded, the small house had been swallowed up, dwarfed by the extravagance of neighbouring properties. Marta came back. The house that was rightfully hers, was returned, albeit reluctantly.
Her home sat there, surrounded by a six foot high, wire fence. They’d built a wall to keep her out, constructed from galvanised chain link so that they could keep an eye on their investment. It was a second occupation, of sorts. Marta was rarely seen outside. Occasionally I’d see her tending to her small garden. She was tolerated by the boss we had privately dubbed ‘Cruella’. Variations of “She has it until she dies.” and “We’re waiting for her to die so that we can bulldoze it.” featured regularly in Cruella’s Marta related repertoire.
The apartment on Ulica Długa (Long Street)
Months later I was offered a beautiful art nouveau apartment for a peppercorn rent on Ulica Długa in the centre of the city. It was heart achingly stunning. A wrought iron staircase spiralled towards the first floor. I stood at the bottom gazing in awe at the coiled handrail corkscrewing upwards. The apartment revealed ornate chandeliers, original furniture from the 1930s and a magnificent view over an ancient city square. As trams rattled by outside, the friend acting as go-between with the owner whispered that the woman the apartment belonged to had passed away. To take on the apartment I would need to pretend that she was still alive. That dazzling apartment belonging to another era also belonged to another person. A person with descendants. A Jewish family. The friend of a friend simply didn’t want to give it back.
The Louvre & Stolen Art
Yes, there are other MNR works in the Louvre. And yes, it may have taken the museum longer than it should to return those works, but things are heading in the right direction.
2019 witnessed Mateusz Morawiecki, Polish Prime Minister, tautologically claiming that restitution for properties stolen during the Holocaust, would be a “victory for Hitler.” As such, Poland would never pay. Not a Złoty. It might have taken three quarters of a century, but even the Louvre has realised that you can’t spin the facts to suit your own narrative forever.
Whilst some people profit from war, and there are many, others resist. Time blunts memories. Our darkest moments in history are all too easily erased by a craven, convenient, collective amnesia. The greed of the Nazi looters was short lived, but their legacy lives on.
And Ulica Długa? I wanted that beautiful apartment. It was a work of art, from a period I had studied and adored – still do. A rare reminder of another era. I just didn’t want it that much.