Six episodes coordinated by the Ministry of Culture take us around the world to the encounter of stolen works of art and to the discovery of the policy of reparation of these dispossession.

Following in the footsteps of a tapestry sold under duress by a Jewish family in 1936, follow three paintings by Fédor Löwenstein stuck in the port of Bordeaux or dive into a set of literary and personal archives that crossed Europe to the USSR before returning to France. All of these exciting stories – and sometimes twists and turns – are told in “Keep Track”. an original podcast designed by the Ministry of Culture, whose six episodes have just been put online. This podcast is one of the Year of Documentary 2023, launched last January.

At the origin of this project, the Mission of search and restitution of plundered cultural property between 1933 and 1945 (M2RS) of the Ministry of Culture. This mission was created in 2019 to lead and animate the public policy of research, repair and memory of the plunder of cultural property. It focuses in particular on individual cases of dispossession by working with the cultural institutions concerned in order to reach a remedy (restitution or compensation).

Through six episodes of about twenty minutes directed by Léa Veinstein and told by the actress Florence Loiret Caille, the listener goes up the thread of these works spoliated in Paris, Bordeaux, Vienna or Munich, whose owners and beneficiaries had to be identified and found. Each episode also reveals the voices of the descendants or representatives of the despoiled people, but also of most of those who participated in the survey: researchers from abroad, representatives of the museums that kept the works… Return on this atypical and exciting project with David Zivie, Head of Mission for the Search and Restitution of Looted Cultural Property between 1933 and 1945, and Elsa Vernier-Lopin, research officer within this mission. 

Annonce, le 15 mars 2021, de la restitution de Rosiers sous les arbres de Klimt par le musée d'Orsay.

You have just launched a series of six podcasts on spoliated works whose origin has been traced. Why did you choose this medium?

Elsa Vernier-Lopin: We started talking about this podcast shortly after the mission was created, one of the objectives of which is to raise awareness of the issues of spoliation. The podcast is a medium that has acquired a great visibility in recent years, quite simple to set up, and that allows to reach as many people as possible because of its gratuitousness.

We already have quite a technical specific space on the Ministry of Culture’s website, and we wanted to find a way to talk about our subjects in a more accessible way for the general public. Dispossession is multiple and some stories, often complex, can be difficult to explain. This podcast allows us to be quite concrete and educational: these are real stories, real works, that concern real families. The voice, and more generally the sound, allow to testify in a more embodied way than the written.

We also wanted to have the time, space and control of our content with a double challenge: to be as precise as possible so as not to make an approximation while remaining accessible through the story. The episodes also allow to hear the voices of the different actors because the mission does not work alone but in network with museums, researchers, families...

David Zivie: We wanted to present this collective work while telling these hard, tragic, complicated, sometimes incredible, but always very strong stories. We are involved in the six episodes: some files started before the creation of the mission, which shows the necessarily long time of this research, others not, but all ended after 2019.

How was the choice of the six works or groups of works made? Have you ensured that the files you deal with on a daily basis are representative?

E.V.-L: We have chosen cases that show the diversity of works. Four of the six episodes are about paintings. In fact, they represent the majority of our work: they are works better referenced in sales catalogues and whose descriptions are simpler. But we also wanted to show the diversity of our approach with two other episodes, one on a tapestry and the other on personal archives.

D.Z.: We wanted to vary the interlocutors, the institutions that have preserved these works, such as the Musée d'Orsay, the Louvre, the National Museum of Modern Art, but also a museum in the region, the Labenche Museum in Brive-la-Gaillarde, and archives preserved by a historical association, the Société des Gens de Lettres. It is the same principle that presided over the choice of places of plunder (Paris, Bordeaux, Germany, Austria) and types of plunder (looting, sale under duress...). 

The relationship with rights holders also called for different treatments. In some cases, the request for research came directly from them and in others, it came from a proactive approach on the part of the department. For the Javal family, forty-seven rights holders were found thanks to the help of the Genealogists of France: the State thus went to meet them even though they themselves had not taken any steps.

E.V.-L: Finally, it was necessary to find almost as many solutions as there are restitutions: it took a law to restore the work of Klimt to its rightful owners, an agreement between the museum of Brive-la-Gaillarde and the family so that the tapestry The Smell of the Mortlake Manufacture can remain in the museum…

We wanted to find
a way to speak
of our subjects
more accessible

To produce this series of podcasts, we needed a personality who had a real appetite for memorial issues like Léa Veinstein…

E.V.-L: The trigger was his exhibition commissariat “The voice of witnesses” at the Shoah Memorial and its podcast on the evolution of testimonies around this period. His work on memory and transmission resonated strongly with our questioning. She has a very different professional look than ours, which allowed us to make the podcast accessible to the general public. 

His work appealed to us because, more than the subject of the Second World War, it was the question of memory that interested us. Works of art are witnesses to history. For example, in one of the episodes, we hear Rose Valland (Conservation attaché at the Jeu de Paume Museum, which played a decisive role in collecting a lot of information on works of art and objects stolen by the Nazis during the Occupation). It is a very strong moment to hear the voice of this essential woman.

2020-06-22-Restitution MGM (47).jpg
Restitution des archives de Michel Georges-Michel à la SGDL le 22 juin 2020.

Has the awareness of these issues of spoliation been felt since the creation of the mission in 2019?

D.Z.: There has been an evolution, an improvement in the awareness of museums, particularly territorial museums, which are wondering about the origin of their collections. For example, more and more questions are received at the time of the acquisition of a work whose provenance is unclear. Research that has not been done in previous acquisitions has been launched in some major national museums such as the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay and the Musée national d'art moderne. A museum is opening a research station specifically on these issues, which did not exist a few years ago. We also see, in the art market, a growing concern of the various actors, so that no looted works are offered for sale.

More and more public actors are interested in this issue with training for students and professionals at the National Heritage Institute or at the Ecole du Louvre or in masters in law or dedicated to the professions of culture. We see more and more museums taking an interest in it from the point of view of mediation and the presentation of these works to the public: opening of a specific room, of a page on their website, special visit routes…

E.V.-L: We are also a more identified interlocutor and we are putting in place a methodology with the provision of specific cartels, indications of mediation but also search tools of provenance. And so – on the valuation side – this series of podcasts.

A mission to amplify research on stolen works of art

Le 25 janvier 2022, l'Assemblée nationale votait le projet de loi relatif à la remise ou la restitution d'œuvres d'art à des victimes de spoliations.

Nearly 100,000 works or works of art and between 5 and 10 million books: the estimated heritage of cultural objects dispossessed in France is considerable. « It is probably undervalued because these figures are based on post-war statements by victims, which are not exhaustive. ” says Zivie. To better identify these properties and trace their history, the mission of research and restitution of stolen cultural property between 1933 and 1945 (M2RS) was created in 2019 within the General Secretariat of the Ministry of Culture. Its objective: to pursue, extend and amplify the policy of reparation and dispossession by developing the research component on cultural works. She works in particular, within the Ministry, with the Service des musées de France and the Book and Reading Service, and, beyond that, with the CIVS (Commission for the compensation of victims of dispossession) , attached to the Prime Minister, who recommends measures to redress anti-Semitic dispossession compensation or restitution.

The M2RS has several missions. The first is to coordinate, mobilize and sensitize scientific teams in museums and libraries and the art market on these issues of spoliation. She then conducts case-by-case study and research on missing or originally dubious works held in public institutions, either at the request of families, or on her own initiative or that of museums and libraries. In particular, it works with museums on the so-called MNR (National Museums Salvage) – just under 2,000 in more than 100 museums in France – found in Germany after the war and sent back to France, a number of which were plundered. Finally, it encourages and supports research on works entered into public collections since 1933, the provenance of which remains uncertain.