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Stolen Art : French Government Under Fire

By Andrew Jack

lettrineARIS, 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 war.

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.

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