PARIS (Jul. 16)
Francis Warin is a man with a purpose. Warin, the grand-nephew of the Jewish art collector Alphonse Kann, has devoted his life to tracing dozens of works of art the Nazis stole from his grand- uncle’s villa in a posh Parisian suburb just three months after they overran France.
“The entire collection of Alphonse Kann was looted in October 1940. Apparently, the Nazis had a very good informer because they knew exactly where to go and it didn’t take them long to achieve their goal,” Warin said.
Earlier this month, Warin’s efforts finally began to bear fruit.
Acting on behalf of Kann’s heirs, Warin recently recovered a painting by the French Cubist Albert Gleizes from the Pompidou Center’s National Museum of Modern Art.
Kann’s collection of several hundred works, which included Impressionist pieces and an important series of Cubist works, was just one of several valuable art collections the Nazis looted from Jewish homes and galleries.
After the war, some 61,000 works were returned to France from Germany, and 44,000 were quickly returned to their rightful owners.
Following an auction by the French state of some 13,000 works of lesser quality, the remaining works — known as MNRs — were temporarily entrusted to France’s state museums.
“Alphonse Kann’s archives and inventories were stolen with the paintings. So when the collections were returned to France in 1945, we had no idea how much there was,” said Warin.
“He was very ill and couldn’t take care of things or even tell us precisely what he had lost.”
Kann died in 1948 at the age of 78.
Warin first realized three years ago that the Gleizes, a 1911 oil entitled “Landscape,” and a more valuable work by Picasso, “Woman’s Head,” were in the Pompidou after he read “The Lost Museum,” a book by the journalist Hector Feliciano that traces the fate of art works the Nazis stole in France.
The book explores how the Nazis confiscated “degenerate” art — Impressionists, Cubists and other modern works — and then traded them with collaborationist dealers for works they valued, such as the Dutch and Flemish Old Masters.
“I was stupefied to learn that so many people were involved,” said Warin. “It woke me up with a jolt.
“We had to wait 50 years and the release of Feliciano’s book to know that many works were drifting about, without our having been able to recover them,” he added.
Feliciano found the Gleizes painting listed on documents of the Nazi’s government branch that supervised the confiscation of art works in France.
The Nazis kept meticulous records of the paintings they stole, including precise descriptions of the works and the names of their original owners.
In 1953, these documents were stored in the French Foreign Ministry, which made no effort to contact the owners of the artworks.
But once Warin knew the whereabouts of at least two of the paintings that had belonged to his grand-uncle, he obtained the Foreign Ministry documents.
After months spent researching and compiling evidence, he asked the French state to return the paintings that belonged to Kann.
“Museums never like to give up what is within their walls,” Warin said.
“It was a real struggle. There was a moment when the museum tried to prove that the Gleizes had been informally donated,” he said.
Warin is not alone in questioning the French museums’ goodwill.
In a report leaked to the press last January, France’s powerful state-spending watchdog accused the national museum network of failing in its legal obligation to try to return the works still in its possession.
In the wake of the report, the museum network, seeking to dispel charges they were harboring stolen works, put some 900 MNRs on exhibit in five state museums, including the Louvre and the Pompidou.
But at the same time, museum network officials insisted that an overwhelming majority of the works were not taken from Jewish collectors, but had been “openly and publicly” sold on the wartime Paris art market.
It is widely believed, however, that many were looted from Jewish-owned collections or sold for below their value by Jews in desperate straits.
Feliciano says the French museums are faced with dozens of claims for art that disappeared during the war, and the Gleizes is a first step in proving they have been negligent.
“It is the first MNR painting to be given back. It’s a vindication because they weren’t doing their job,” he said in an interview. “You cannot find this out unless you look hard.”
For now, Warin and his relatives have put the Gleizes painting in a safe place — they hope to recover the Picasso this fall.
He is actively pursuing other works he believes are in the United States.
“Of course we are very happy to have recovered it. But what is important is that it is the first step in righting a wrong that has gone on for so long,” Warin said.