By Andrew Jack
19 February 1997 - A writer who has been researching the fate of
works of art taken from Jews in France during the second world war has
criticized the lack of effort from the government in attempting to
find their rightful owners.
Speaking at a seminar on the expropriation of property organised by
the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Paris at the end of January, Mr Hector
Feliciano said the initiative by the state to make available on the
Internet a list of paintings not returned to their owners was both
incomplete and pointless.
In spite of claims by the Ministry of Culture at the end of last
year that a list of 2,000 works of art held by the National Museum
Service was now available on-line, Mr Feliciano said only 200-300
could currently be consulted.
More importantly, he argued that the Service did little more than
serve as a "smokescreen" and potentially stimulate the art
market rather than help identify the rightful owners of the works.
He said that anyone who knew that they or their family had lost a
well-known work of art during the war would have made enquiries
directly and did not need the Internet to help them.
Others whose relatives had been killed and records destroyed during
the war might not be aware of what had been lost. To identify them
required active and intensive research by the Museum Service directly,
he said. His own researches demonstrated how difficult gaining access
to the official archives could be.
He stressed the importance of Paris during the war as a centre both
for art sales and collectors. He cited a German report dating from
1944 listing 25,000 paintings which had been officially confiscated,
and argued that many more had been stolen or forcibly bought at low
prices from Jews by individual soldiers.
Some of the criticisms, first made in a book written by Mr Feliciano
in 1995, have been picked up in a recent report by the Cour des
Comptes, the public sector watchdog, which has not yet been made
public, but which reproached the Museum Service for failing to publish
a comprehensive catalogue and last exhibiting publicly all the
confiscated works in 1954.
A letter on the subject from Ms Françoise Cachin, Director of
the Museum Service, to the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, argued that the
Service had never attempted to integrate the art works into its own
collection, and stressed that some 45,000 it held had been returned to
their owners in 1949.
It argued that of the remaining 2,000 "probably a large number
were sold, perfectly legitimately, by their owners to the Nazi
occupiers", and there was no proof that many were originally
owned by and stolen from Jews.
Mr Feliciano's comments come at a time of growing pressure for
research into the question of confiscated property during the war-time
Vichy government in France, triggered in part by revelations in a book
last year that a number of the apartments which the City of Paris is
putting up for sale had been confiscated from Jewish owners during the
Mr Alain Juppé, the French Prime Minister, at the start of
February nominated Mr Jean Matteoli, head of the Economic and Social
Council, to chair a Commission set up to identify and consider legal
questions surrounding confiscated Jewish property.
The French government also gave its approval at the end of last
month for a change in the distribution terms of the tripartite
Commission on Monetary Gold set up after the war in cooperation with
the UK and the US. The modification would hand the remaining 5.5
tonnes controlled by the Commission to uncompensated victims of the
holocaust rather than national governments.
Andrew Jack is the Paris correspondent of the Financial Times and a member
of the Editorial Board of Culturekiosque.com.