Hoping for a miracle, looted art exhibit opens

Pieces stolen from France by the Nazis look for rightful owners at Israel Museum.

nazi art expo 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
nazi art expo 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
"What we expect from this exhibit is that a miracle will occur and someone will come here and say 'that belongs to me,'" French Minister of Culture and Communication Christine Albanel said Monday night in Jerusalem at the opening of an Israel Museum exhibit called Looking For Owners: Custody, Research, and Restitution of Art Stolen in France during World War II. The Nazis took 100,000 pieces of art from France during the war. Of those, 60,000 were recovered, and 45,000 of them were returned to their owners or heirs, explained Albanel. Most of the rest were auctioned off, and 2,000 pieces with unknown ownership remain in French hands. Looking for Owners consists of 53 paintings chosen from the 2,000, a collection of works of art in France known as Musées Nationaux Récupération (MNR). The exhibition features the works of major European artists, including Eugene Delacroix, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Claude Monet and Georges Seurat. Posted alongside each work of art in the exhibit is a short history of what is known about its original ownership and its movement since the war. Saying that the collaborative exhibit between France and the museum "expresses our friendship toward Israel," Albanel explained that "the government sees the project as a direct continuation of the work started by The Matteoli Commission," which was formed in 1997 by then-prime minister Alain Juppé to study the matter of Jewish property restitution in France. Among the recommendations of the committee was to hold an exhibition of the MNR works at the Israel Museum. Calling the issue of looted art from the Holocaust "one of the challenging chapters of World War II," Israel Museum Director James Snyder said at the opening that there was a resonance between the subject of art taken during the war and the very existence of Israel. "Works of art taken during the war and the history of what happened to them afterward is a kind of legacy of the wartime period. Israel grew from the ashes of the tragedy of the war, so it's appropriate for Israel's national museum to be hosting the exhibit," he said. "This is the first time we've collaborated with sister institutions in another country to bring the story of art taken during the war in that country - in this case France - and bring that material here for an exhibition in Jerusalem," he added. In the exhibit of art from France, nearly every painting has a story. Some were seized by the Nazis for inclusion in a museum of European art that Hitler planned to build in Linz, Austria. The Bathers, an 1858 nude by the French realist Gustave Courbet, was purchased by Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's main diplomat, in a legitimate transaction with a Parisian art dealer. The painting, one of the few in the exhibit that wasn't looted by the Nazis, was seized by the Allies after the war. Landscape, the Pink Wall, an early Matisse, was owned by SS officer Dr. Kurt Gerstein. The painting was found by Allied troops hidden in an alcove behind a plaster wall in Gerstein's house after the war. The exhibit also includes several pieces that were successfully restored to their owners, like La Buveuse, a 1658 painting by Dutch master Pieter de Hooch that hung in the salon of financier Edouard de Rothschild in Paris before the war. But most of the paintings have a shrouded history, and the French and Israeli partners are hoping the exhibit will shed some light on their history and ownership. To that end, the exhibit includes a "library" room which contains computer terminals allowing museum patrons to go on-line and look through a selection of looted art archives and databases from around the world. According to the museum's curator of European art, Shlomit Steinberg, who curated the exhibit together with French counterpart Isabel le Masne de Chermont, the library is as important as the exhibit itself. "It was important to incorporate something larger, something educational, to the exhibit," she said. Also on display are photographs taken after the war showing warehouses with thousands of crates of looted paintings and Judaica on their way back to France after the war. "I believe that this exhibit might be able to shed light on those paintings which we don't have information about. Who knows, they might not have come originally from France - but were taken from a Jew in another country and somehow ended up there." Looking for Owners will be on view through June 3, along with a second exhibition, Orphaned Art - more than 50 of the 1,200 unclaimed works of looted art held by the Israel Museum, which were stolen during the war and later brought to Israel. The exhibit features paintings, drawings, prints and books, together with a selection of Jewish ceremonial objects, and includes such artists as Jan Both, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Marc Chagall, Egon Schiele and Alfred Sisley. The works were given to the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization after the war. AP contributed to this report.