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France gives back paintings lost as Nazis pushed through Europe

March 19, 2013|By Kim Willsher
  • American Thomas Selldorff and French Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti at a ceremony Tuesday at the Culture Ministry in Paris.
American Thomas Selldorff and French Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti… (Michel Euler / Associated…)

This post has been corrected. See the note below.

PARIS — France on Tuesday gave  seven paintings once destined for display in an art gallery for Adolf Hitler back to the families of those who had lost or sold them as the Nazis pushed through Europe.

Four of the paintings had been hanging in the Louvre in Paris.

French officials said during a ceremony at the Ministry of Culture that the effort was part of the government’s push to return art and cultural objects looted before and during World War II.

Six of the seven paintings returned Tuesday had belonged to Richard Neumann, a collector of works by 18th century Italian painters, who was living in Vienna before the war. Neumann was forced to leave behind part of his collection when he fled to France in 1938. When the Nazis marched into France, Neumann and his wife fled to Cuba, selling remaining works at low prices to fund their escape.

The art was presented to Neumann's American grandson, Thomas Selldorff, 84.

The seventh work, by Dutch painter Pieter Jansz van Asch,  belonged to Josef Wiener of Prague, who died in a Nazi concentration camp, and whose collection was sold by the Nazis in 1941. The Van Asch was mistakenly returned to France after the war. A lawyer representing an heir in Israel attended the ceremony.

From 1933 through 1945, the Nazis purloined around 100,000 paintings, sculptures and other valuable objects in Jewish private collections in Europe, officials said. Some items were sold under pressure, often to fund an escape from German occupation and the death camps. At the end of the war, many of the works were sent back to the European countries it was believed they had come from.

France received 65,000 pieces of art, of which almost three-quarters were returned to their owners. Of the remaining, 14,000 were sold at auction, the proceeds going to the state, and 2,140 of the most valuable were sent to French museums.

The country has received some criticism from those who think that  dragged its feet in returning looted pieces on what should have been a moral priority.

French Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti said Tuesday that the return of the art was “emotional ... and symbolic.” A search for the rightful owners of the art should be launched, she said.

“Until now we've waited for requests from the rightful owners or their descendants to start the research,” she told Le Figaro newspaper before the ceremony. “It's as much a moral issue as a scientific one.”

For the record, 6:04 p.m. March 19: A previous version of this post referred to Pieter Jansz van Asch as a German painter.

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