After a 12-year fight, Thomas Selldorf of Massachusetts will soon be receiving six paintings that had belonged to his grandfather during the Nazi era. At the end of last week the French Culture Ministry announced that it will be returning to Selldorf and to another Jewish family a total of seven paintings that were looted, confiscated or stolen by the Nazis during the 1930s and 1940s.
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Selldorf, 82, is the grandson of Richard Neumann, an Austrian Jewish industrialist who moved to France during World War II. He was forced to sell his art collection and fled with his family to Cuba, thus saving them from deportation. The last time Selldorf saw the paintings was as a small boy in Vienna in the 1930s.
The six paintings to be returned to Selldorf are by 18th-century German and Italian artists. No one knows what happened to them after the Holocaust and how they ended up in museums in France. Two of the paintings were on display in the Louvre and one in the Museum of Modern Art Saint-Etienne.
The seventh work will be returned to the heirs of Josef Weiner, a Jewish banker from Prague. His collection was confiscated in 1939 by the Gestapo before he was deported to Theresienstadt, where he died in 1942. After the war, the painting was mistakenly taken to Paris. Wiener’s widow made fruitless efforts to locate it in Germany, and it hung at the Louvre until the mid-2000s when the family found it in a list published on the Internet.
The paintings were given back as part of France’s efforts to return hundreds of stolen works of art in museums across the country. However, deputy director of collections for France’s National Museums Agency, Bruno Saunier, said it was very rare to be able to return so many paintings at once, and that in an average year they return only one painting. “It’s the largest number of paintings we’ve been able to give back to Jewish families in over a decade,” he said.
According to Saunier, there are about 2,000 works of art in France suspected of being stolen, but finding their owners is a complex operation involving combing French archives and family archives as well as reconstructing the paintings' provenance.
The Nazis plundered approximately 670,000 works of art throughout Europe between 1933 and 1945, including works by masters such as Monet and Chagall. Adolf Hitler wanted to display the works in a museum he wanted to build in the Austrian city of Linz, where he grew up. Most of the works have not been returned to their rightful owners or heirs to this day.