Seeking to disprove charges that it was concealing works of art seized by the Nazi occupiers, France this week unveiled some 987 paintings, drawings and sculptures that have not been claimed by their owners or heirs since the end of World War II.
But as five state-run museums, including the Louvre, the Pompidou Centre and the Musee d’Orsay, opened exhibits of the works, a new controversy erupted.
The fray developed after the head of France’s national museums said that the majority of the works, which include paintings by Renoir, Monet and Cezanne, were legally purchased during the war, and that few were looted from Jews.
“The Germans were extraordinarily meticulous,” said Francoise Cachin, director of the national museum network, the Musees de France. “The documentation shows that the majority of these paintings were bought, clearly and publicly in the flourishing Paris art market.”
Cachin’s statements provoked an angry protest from the French section of the World Jewish Congress, which accused the museums of hiding the art for 50 years.
Serge Czajgenbaum, secretary general of the WJC’s French section, said in an interview that 66,000 Jewish families were looted by the Nazis during the war.
“As of July 1940, the German ambassador to France, Otto Abetz, began an inventory of Jewish art works,” Czajgenbaum said.
“Within a few months, the embassy was the center of a huge art market,” he added. “It was the fruits of massive pillaging of the Jews of France.”
Czajgenbaum said the Germans covered up their theft by selling works looted from Jews to collaborationist art dealers, who in turn sold them to buyers for German museums.
“There was a whole cycle of theft, looting and reselling stolen works.”
In a statement, the WJC’s French section expressed its “extreme surprise” at Cachin’s attitude.
“While admitting that a tiny portion of these art works had been legally acquired, one cannot speak of a `flourishing art market’ in Paris during the occupation, but rather of flourishing art trafficking, of theft, of plundering and selling stolen works,” the statement said.
Many observers saw the French museum exhibits as a positive sign of the postwar generation’s desire to shed light on France’s wartime role.
But some said the government had no choice but to display the works after a damning report by France’s state-spending watchdog, the Cour des Comptes, was leaked to the media in January.
That report had accused France’s state museums of making little or no effort to seek out the owners of some 2,000 art works plundered during the war.
The government, which recently formed a commission to investigate Jewish property looted by the Nazis, has said it welcomed legitimate claims to the art.
But the government apparently believes that few owners will step forward.
“I want to show that the reality is more complex than the rumors which would lead us to believe that French museums have hidden away veritable masterpieces seized from Jewish families by the Nazis,” Culture Minister Philippe Douste- Blazy said at a preview of the Musee d’Orsay exhibit.
“If I have decided to have these works presented, it is by a desire for openness,” Douste-Blazy added, standing before a massive 1870 oil by Courbet titled “The Cliffs of Etretat After a Storm.”
The Musee d’Orsay exhibit also included several works by Monet, including his 1876 oil “Train in the Countryside” and “View of Argenteuil” from 1872; pastels by Degas; and a self-portrait by Cezanne.
Many of the displayed works were accompanied by labels tracing their past ownership to disprove accusations the art had in fact originally belonged to Jews.
But several others — including Renoir’s pastel “Head of a Young Girl,” his oil “Meeting in a Garden” and Manet’s watercolor “Turkeys and a Duck” simply bore the label “Origin: Unknown.”
In an announcement that appeared to be timed to coincide with the exhibits, the French Foreign Ministry said it was in the process of returning three works to the heirs of the original owners.
The works, including a 1921 Picasso painting “Woman’s Head,” are among 38 works on display at the Pompidou Center until April 21.
The largest collection is at the Louvre, where 678 unclaimed works, including paintings by Corot, Rubens and Delacroix, will be shown until May 5.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center has asked France to send the complete collection of works on an international tour that would start at the Museum of Tolerance at the center’s Los Angeles headquarters.
The Wiesenthal Center made the suggestion in order “to permit Holocaust survivors in the United States the opportunity to verify potential claims to these pieces.”
Of 61,257 works that France recovered from Germany, 45,441 were returned to their rightful owners in the years immediately after the war.
The remaining 15,858 were displayed between 1950 and 1954 at the Chateau of Compiegne about 60 miles north of Paris. That exhibit resulted in about seven claims.
The government then sold 13,800 minor works and entrusted the rest to the national museums, which were under a legal obligation to try to find the owners.
When the current exhibitions end, the government commission probing Jewish property will make recommendations about the future of the works.
Some observers have expressed concern that, having made the gesture of mounting the displays, the government may propose legislation making state museums the legal owners of the works, using the argument that no more legal claimants exist.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.