French Still Making Insufficient Efforts to Return Nazi-Looted Art

By: Jonathan Snow, Senior Intern

While the French government recently announced new steps it was taking for repatriating Holocaust looted art, those efforts were superficial and inadequate, according to Martin Bienstock, a lawyer who specializes in Holocaust art repatriation.

“Given the vast number of known looted artworks in its possession, the dismally low rate of repatriation, and the vast holdings in Government museums, France needs immediately to undertake a comprehensive effort to repatriate looted artworks. Butt’s research budget of less than $250,000 a year is more consistent with a superficial effort to deflect criticism while preserving the status quo,” Bienstock said.

French “reforms” were the subject of a recent New York Times article titled “‘We Are Amplifying the Work’: France Starts Task Force on Art Looted Under Nazis,” which quotes a French art curator that “we should feel, in good conscience, that we did as much as we could.” In fact, estimates are that 100,000 pieces of art were looted in France alone during the Holocaust. Over the years, some of these pieces have made their way back to their proper owners but many pieces were sold at auctions and the French government gave over 2,000 pieces to their own museums.

Even of those 2,000 pieces alone – that is, artworks that came into French state museums only because they had been looted — only about 120 of them have been returned, or about .05%. Even when the heirs to looted art are identified, the French authorities do not return the art to its rightful owners, providing only inadequate restitution instead.

“The French effort may be slightly better than that of the Hungarians and other countries that have effectively been obstructing the return of looted art,” Bienstock said. “But more should be expected from a liberal democracy in Western Europe, especially one with such a sad history of acquiescence to the Nazis.”

“In the absence of adequate efforts by government, United States lawyers have stepped up to help retrieve the looted art,” Bienstock said, pointing to his successful efforts to retrieve the German impressionist painting Nach House on behalf of its owners. In another recent case, a Pissarro looted by the Vichy government was returned to the heirs of the Holocaust victim from whom it had been stolen. As the U.S. court explained, “sales of all goods looted from Jewish people by the Nazis or the French Vichy regime [are] deemed to be void.”

In view of this rule, France has a great deal of work to do before it can reasonably claim that “we did as much as we could.”

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