France has finalized the restitution of 15 artworks sold under duress or looted by the Nazis, including paintings by Gustav Klimt and Marc Chagall. The bill passed unanimously on Tuesday in the French National Assembly, and is expected to be approved by its Senate on February 15.
In a statement, the Minister of Culture, Roselyne Bachelot, applauded the vote, saying that the continued dispossession of the art was “the denial of the humanity [of these Jewish families], their memory, their memories.”
Among the collection is a painting by Chagall, titled The Father, which was looted from David Cender, a Polish Jewish musician and luthier, who arrived in France in 1958. It entered the national collection in 1988.
Klimt’s Rosiers sous les arbres (Roses Under the Trees), ca. 1905, which depicts a cluster of leaves, flowers, and fruit as a brilliant mosaic of colors, is another highlight of the restitution effort. Its original Austrian-Jewish owner, Nora Stiasny, inherited the painting upon the death of her uncle, the Austrian industrialist and art collector Viktor Zuckerkandl, in 1927. (Including Rosiers sous les arbres, seven paintings by Klimt were left in Zuckerkandl’s estate). However, Stiasny was forced to sell the painting following the Nazi regime’s annexation of Austria in 1938. She was later killed in Poland in 1942.
The painting has been in the Musée d’Orsay’s collection since 1980, when it was purchased by the French government from Zurich’s Nathan Peter Gallery. The sale was approved by the Artistic Council of National Museum prior to the museum’s opening in 1986.
Stiasny sold the painting to Philipp Häusler, the short-term director of the Vienna School of Applied Arts and a Nazi party member, in 1938 for 400 RM, a fraction of its true value. Häusler smuggled the work into Frankfurt and held it in his personal collection until his death in 1966.
According to French law, the government is required to submit a bill that approved the release of a painting from its national collection, on the basis that it is looted cultural property.
“This decision to return a major artwork from the public collections illustrates our commitment to justice and to reparation for the looted families,” Bachelot said previously.
The restitution of the Klimt is part of a larger campaign by France to identify objects in its national collection looted between 1933 and 1945. The initiative has illustrated, among other things, the difficulty in untangling provenances during a period of rampant looting and illicit dealing. In 2001, Klimt’s Pommier II was returned to Stiasny’s heirs from Austria’s Belvedere gallery. In 2017, an Austrian restitution committee commissioned provenance researcher Monika Mayer and Klimt expert Tobias Natter to revisit the painting’s record. They concluded that Pommier II had been restituted to the wrong family, but had no legal framework to reclaim a work gifted to a private individual from a national collection. After further investigation, it was discovered that Rosiers sous les arbres was the rightful property of the Stiasnys.