The Louvre: Returning Artwork Stolen by Nazis, One Family at a Time
This spring break, I visited Paris with the University of Maryland Classics Department, on the Maryland Short-term trip, “France: Classical Myths in Paris (CLAS).” Guided by Professor Lillian Doherty, department chair of the Classics Department at University of Maryland, we toured famous museums, churches and neighborhoods, such as Notre Dame, the Louvre, and Musée d’Orsay, and learned about classical artifacts and their reception in France. Aware of my interests, Professor Doherty informed me before the trip of a new temporary exhibit at the Louvre seeks to return stolen Jewish artwork that the Nazis looted or bought during their reign of terror in World War II (Breeden 2018). Unlike other exhibits, the thirty-one works on display in two small rooms clash with one another, as they come from different artists, styles, and eras (ibid). Many of these pieces formerly hung in other exhibits of the Louvre, with little indication of their tumultuous history (ibid). The goal of this exhibit, to reunite paintings with the descendants of their owners, is truly admirable.
How did the Louvre even get these pieces of art? Over 100,00 pieces of art were looted or sold by duress to Nazis during the German occupation of France and many of these belonged to Jews who sold treasured heirlooms and art to flee the country or merely survived (Chazan 2018). From 1945 to 1949, about 45,000 out of the 61,000 pieces of art were claimed by their owners, but many unclaimed pieces were merely sold at auction (Louvre 2018). However, the French government held onto 2,143 pieces and entered them into the Musées Nationaux Récupération (ibid). This inventory, now online, in turn has entrusted the works of art to various French museums and since the 1950s, over about 50 looted objected were returned to their legitimate owners and their descendants (ibid). The Louvre has 807 paintings and they have sought to reunite the paintings with their owners by contacting genealogists and working with authorities, including the Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliation, a commission dedicated to confronting reparation claims of victims of France’s anti-Semitic laws during World War II (Breeden 2018).
This exhibit is a new step to try to publicly acknowledge the tumultuous past of many of these pieces, but many criticize the exhibit for not providing enough historical context, not indicating how these paintings arrived in Germany, and not including that most of the paintings belonged to Jews (ibid; Dwyer 2018). Regardless of these drawbacks, the Louvre has clearly made a conscious effort to examine and confront the difficult history of they acquired these pieces of art and have recognized that it is not theirs to keep.
Desperately wanting to be impressed, I was still disappointed by the temporary exhibit in the Louvre like almost every other critic and art historian. The exhibit was nearly impossible to find and I had to ask for directions multiple times, which was difficult in my basic French. It was tucked into a little alcove in Northern European art without much fanfare unlike other temporary exhibits, such as the one they are installing on Delacroix. The exhibit had very little to say about individuals works of art, but perhaps the most disappointing part of it all was that the exhibit was closed when I sought to bring the whole class to present. I think that while the exhibit had great intentions, a more moving exhibit would include depiction of the works of art that were reunited with families. In contrast to the thirty-one works hanging silently on the wall, with their forgotten histories, the works that have been reunited with families have a poignant story to tell. There could be a multimedia display showing pictures of the families receiving the works, the history of the work of art (as reconstructed by the family and the Louvre), where the art resided during its time in the Louvre, and an internet-ready device that has the MNR database ready for visitors to explore. The possibility of reuniting these works with their families and uncovering these poignant stories are what make these works of art so valuable. An exhibit that could harness this potential would be priceless, to Jews, the Louvre, and France as a nation.
Breeden, Aurelien. 2018. "Art Looted by Nazis Gets a New Space at the Louvre. But Is It Really Home? ." New York Times, February 8. Accessed March 16, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/08/world/europe/louvre-nazi-looted-art.html.
Chazan, David. 2018. "Louvre displays Nazi-looted paintings in bid to find rightful owners of 2,000 unclaimed artworks ." The Telegraph, January 30. Accessed March 16, 2018. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/01/30/louvres-appeal-find-rightful-owners-2000-artworks-looted-nazis/.
Dwyer, Colin. 2018. "France Returns Works Orphaned By Nazi Looting, Seeking Owners Or Heirs." NPR, February 14. Accessed March 16, 2018. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/02/14/585712083/france-showcases-works-orphaned-by-nazi-looting-seeking-owners-or-heirs.
Louvre. 2018. Louvre.February 9. Accessed March 16, 2018. http://presse.louvre.fr/two-new-rooms-at-the-louvre-for-stolen-paintings-recovered-after-wwii/.