By Catherine Sezgin
During World War II in Nazi-occupied Paris, more than 20,000 art objects were systematically looted from over 200 Jewish families, and either sold or transported to Germany. Seventy years later, at least half of the objects have not yet been restituted to the owners, or their heirs, in accordance with the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The Claims Conference and the United State Holocaust Museum have just released an online database of art objects that were processed from 1940 to 1944 in the center of Paris at the Jeu de Paume on the Place de la Concorde.
As the Nazis’s special task force the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) confiscated paintings, sculptures, objets d’art, and antiquities from private collections. More than sixty people at the Jeu de Paume inventoried, photographed, and arranged for the transportation of the artworks on 120 railways coaches from France to Germany. Every looted painting was registered and stamped by the Nazis. The French national, Rose Volland, a volunteer at the museum before the war who observed the operation, kept a secret account of everything the Nazis stole and where they planned to deliver the art. Using secret couriers during the war, she notified the Allied Forces of the Nazis’s activities. After the defeat of the Third Reich, much of the stolen art was found and returned to their countries of origin to be reunited with their owners. However, many families, who were devastated by the Holocaust, did not have the records to identify or claim artworks.
Now the Claims Conference, working with the technical support of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, has transferred the information from the index cards, or inventory lists, to a database “Cultural Plunder by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg: Database of Art Objects at the Jeu de Paume.”
“Decades after the greatest mass theft in history, families robbed of their prize artworks can now search this list to help them locate long-lost treasures,” said Julius Berman, Claims Conference Chairman [in a press release]. “It is now the responsibility of museums, art dealers, and auction houses to check their holdings against these records to determine whether they might be in possession of art stolen from Holocaust victims. Organizing Nazi art-looting records is an important step in righting a historical wrong. It is not too late to restore art that should have been passed down within Jewish families instead of decorating Nazi homes or stored at Nazi sites.”
The public can access the newly released online database on Nazi looted art from Paris through the URL: www.errproject.org/jeudepaume. Users can search by collection, owner, artist, and type of art object (paintings, works on paper, sculpture, decorative arts or antiquities). Information in the database will be regularly updated, according to Project Director Marc Masurovsky, a consultant to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Masurovsky used some ARCA graduates to assist in the inputting of the datasets.
Masurovsky, the co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP), which began in 1997, spoke about documenting and recovering Nazi looted art last March at the National Museum of Crime & Punishment for ARCA’s exhibit “The Dark Arts: Thieves, Forgers and Tomb Raiders” in Washington, DC this past February. He also spoke about “Nazi Plunder of Looted Cultural Property and Its Impact on Today’s Art Market” at ARCA’s International Art Crime Conference in July in Amelia, Italy.
In the future, users will be able to find individual datasets through Google by typing specific artists’ names in the search box, Masurovsky wrote in an email. Each object in the database is described based on the information from the card that the Nazis filled out and includes any images that may have been taken. The database also provides information about whether or not the artwork was returned to France and if it was restituted to its owner. For example, Arthur Levy’s collection of 125 artworks has not been returned to the family. Database users can even search by Artist. For example, a landscape by Vincent van Gogh from the collection of Alfred Weinberger in Paris was photographed and measured (60 x 100 cm) when it was brought to the Jeu de Paume in 1941 on December 4.
The Jeu de Paume as a looted art center was of particular interest to the German army’s second-in-command, Hermann Göring who spent two days there during the war looking at the art. He then asked that photographs of the art be sent to Hitler for him to make selections from the spoils of war. Unfortunately, in July 1942, the Jeu de Paume collection center was overburdened. Paintings declared unfit for German collections and too degenerate to be sold on the art market were burned in the garden. Rose Volland was said to have cried at the destruction of works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Jean Míro and Salvador Dali.