Stolen Art on Display in a Search for Owners
JERUSALEM — In a remarkable feat of cooperation between France and Israel, requiring intensive negotiations and the passage of a law by the Israeli Parliament, the Israel Museum here has opened an exhibition of important art looted by the Nazis from France and then returned after the war. Some of it was never reclaimed, presumably because the owners were killed in the Holocaust.
Running parallel to the show of French-held art is a companion exhibition: looted art, with no known owners, held in custody by the Israel Museum itself.
The two exhibitions are haunting, and they also contain some notable art, including works by Cézanne, Manet, Degas, Chagall, Delacroix, Egon Schiele, Monet, Alfred Sisley, Max Liebermann, Pieter de Hooch and others.
Some of the French-held art was ordered taken by Hitler himself, for the Third Reich. Some pieces were looted; others were forced sales. After the war some works were immediately returned; de Hooch’s 1658 painting “The Drinker,” for example, was returned to the family of Édouard de Rothschild, whose daughter donated it to the Louvre in 1974. Some owners sold their works to museums, but some owners were never found.
The 53 French-held paintings are among some 2,000 works still not restored to their owners or descendants and maintained by French museums. The Israeli collection is smaller and less distinguished but includes an important Schiele cityscape of his mother’s birthplace, “Krumau — Crescent of Houses (The Small City V),” whose splayed arrangement of the houses carries an implicit sexual power.
The French exhibition is titled “Looking for Owners: Custody, Research and Restitution of Art Stolen in France During World War II.” France’s minister of culture and communications, Christine Albanel, came to Jerusalem to help open the exhibit Monday evening, despite a fierce winter storm.
France has both a duty and “a very strong desire” to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust, she said. In part, the exhibition fulfills a requirement of a French commission formed in 1997 to study Jewish property restitution, which recommended a project with the Israel Museum.
But Ms. Albanel is credited by the Israelis for working with the French Foreign Ministry to persuade the French bureaucracy to approve showing such important paintings, instead of more ordinary work; not all looted art was either good or valuable.
Still, Israel first had to pass a law that prevents the seizure of art temporarily exhibited in Israel by those who claim to own it. The 2007 legislation states that claims can be made only in the exhibition’s country of origin, in this case France. France would not have allowed the pictures to be shown here without such a law, a legacy of the 1998 controversy over the seizure in New York of Schiele paintings on loan from the Leopold Foundation in Vienna.
James S. Snyder, the director of the Israel Museum, praised Ms. Albanel, saying that “there is a resonance between the art and the state of Israel” because both were rescued, in a sense, “from the ashes of the tragedy of the war.”
The exhibition, he said, “is a kind of memorial to our loss in Europe.”
The parallel Israeli exhibition — some 50 paintings, drawings, artifacts and Judaica — is called “Orphaned Art: Looted Art From the Holocaust in the Israel Museum.” The display is drawn from some 1,200 works collated by the Jewish Restitution Service Organization, charged by the United States to gather looted art from Germany after the more obvious postwar restitutions had been made. The organization distributed the art to Jewish institutions in Israel and worldwide.
Much of the collection is indifferent or anonymous, and the museum has no record of its provenance. But Israel wanted to show, Mr. Snyder said, that “the issue of art lost in the war is a challenge shared by museums and countries around the world, including Israel.”
The Israel Museum (www.imjnet.org.il) has put the unclaimed art on its Web site. The two exhibitions will be on view here through June 3, and then appear at the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris from June 24 to Sept. 28.