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France to approve return of 15 artworks stolen from Jews during World War II

Motion authorizes public museums holding works, including Musee d’Orsay in Paris, to hand over property to heirs of original owners

This photograph taken on October 29, 2020 shows the empty entrance of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris at its closing time, ahead of a second national general lockdown from October 30 to December 1, aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19 (STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP)
This photograph taken on October 29, 2020 shows the empty entrance of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris at its closing time, ahead of a second national general lockdown from October 30 to December 1, aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19 (STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP)

PARIS, France (AFP) — The French senate is set to approve on Tuesday the return of 15 artworks looted from Jews during World War II, as part of efforts by the government to accelerate restitutions.

The vote authorizes public museums holding the works, including the world-famous Musee d’Orsay in Paris, to hand over the property to the heirs of the original owners.

French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot called the move “historic,” adding that it was the first time in 70 years that the French government had made serious steps to return artworks “that were acquired in troubling circumstances during the occupation because of anti-Semitic persecution.”

She called the legislation a “first stage” in returning objects that “are still being conserved in public collections — objects that ought not, and should never have been there.”

The bill cleared the lower house of parliament in late January and now requires approval by the Senate and the signature of President Emmanuel Macron to enter into force.

Thousands of paintings by some of the world’s most famous artists were looted or forcibly acquired during the Nazi occupation of France and have been kept in custody by public museums such as the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay in Paris since the end of the conflict.

Tourists stand outside the Louvre museum, in Paris, France, March 1, 2020. (Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP)

In 2018, the government set up a special unit to try to track down the heirs of the owners, rather than waiting for them to come forward in a bid to speed up the process.

One of the paintings set to be returned is titled “Rose Bushes Under Trees” by Gustav Klimt, which is currently held by the Musee d’Orsay and is the only painting by the Austrian master owned by the French state.

It was acquired in 1980 but subsequent research has shown it was forcibly sold by Austrian collector Eleonore Stiasny in Vienna in 1938 before she was deported and killed.

French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot poses next to an oil painting by Gustav Klimt painted in 1905 called ‘Rose Bushes Under Trees,’ during a ceremony at the Orsay museum in Paris, March 15, 2021. (Alain Jocard/Pool Photo via AP)

In December, another four works of looted art were returned to their Jewish owner’s legal heirs. The watercolors and drawings by French 19th-century artists were seized in 1940 from businessman Moise Levi de Benzion.

Until these four works were returned, only 169 artworks had been restored to their owners since 1951 out of an estimated 2,200 held by the French state.

The French culture ministry estimates that a total of 100,000 artworks were seized in France during the war, when the country was administered by the Nazis and an antisemitic French collaborationist regime.

In November, France handed back 26 treasures that were looted from the West African nation of Benin during the colonial era, part of a separate pledge by Macron to restore some artworks to the continent.

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