At the heart of the six episodes of the podcast, works or group of works whose stories are very different. Back on these files, witnesses of the spoliations of the Nazi era.

They are paintings, literary archives or a tapestry of an English manufacture. These works were plundered from a collector or directly from the artist or recognized of dubious origin decades later and finally returned to the rights holders. They are the subjects of the six episodes of the podcast «À la trace» directed by Léa Veinstein for the Ministry of Culture, one of the meetings of the Year of Documentary 2023 launched last January.

To trace the history of these works of art, it took the combined work of the Mission of Research and Restitution of Cultural Property Plundered between 1933 and 1945, curators of museums, researchers of origin and even descendants of artists or collectors. A look back at these long-term investigations, through the voice of one of those who helped to lift the mystery.

Episode 1: Across the Board

Nus dans un paysage, Max Pechstein.

What happened between 1938, the date indicated on a label on the back of Max Pechstein’s painting, and 1966, when the work was found in the basement of the Palais de Tokyo? The riddle has not yet been fully solved despite the insistent research of Didier Schulmann, a former curator at the National Museum of Modern Art. « We don’t know how he got here, it’s a series of mysteries. We’re just doing a hypothetical reconstruction to find out where this picture came from. » However, the curator came up with a lot of leads, following in the footsteps of Hugo Simon, German Jewish banker, art collector, close to the expressionist artists of the time.

The grey areas remain, as the canvas does not appear in any document. Nor in the list of works sold during the London exhibition at which Naked in a landscape was to appear in 1938. Nor in the list of works stolen by the Nazis from Hugo Simon’s apartment, in a mansion on Rue de Grenelle in Paris. No archive of the auction of works of art organized after the dissolution of the Bank of Algeria, owner of the hotel where the painting would have remained. Finally no written record of a curator’s telephone conversation with Sonia Delaunay, some of whose drawings were also found at the Palais de Tokyo with Pechstein’s painting and during which she explained the progress of her works, conversation that could have traced the course of time…

After its discovery, the painting entered the collections of the National Museum of Modern Art, before an investigation was opened in 2005 on its doubtful origin. It was finally returned in 2021 to Hugo Simon’s great-grandson. Didier Schulmann continues to look for answers. “ What interests me is to bring to light the cowardice and complicity that accompanied the persecution and survived long after the war. »

Naked din a landscape Max Pechstein, spoof Hugo Simon

Episode 2: The Klimt Shadow

Rosiers sous les arbres, Gustav Klimt

On the other hand, a goldsmith then artistic director of the Viennese Workshops in the 1920s, close to Nora Stiasny, the heiress of this Roses under trees who was deported and murdered in 1942. On the other side, a Nazi militant who did not hesitate to exert psychological pressure to buy back the painting for less than 400 reichsmark, more than twelve times less than his evaluated price.

These two faces are those of Philipp Häusler and they will cross in the years 2010. At the time, Roses under the trees is exposed at the Musée d'Orsay who bought it in 1980 during its prefiguration period. “ At the time, we were trying to enrich our foreign collections with artists who matter in the history of art », says Emmanuel Coquery, general curator of heritage at the museum.

In 2001, Apple II, gift of Gustav Ucicky, illegitimate son of Klimt also close to the Nazis, is returned to Nora Stiasny’s rights holders by the Belvedere Museum. But in 2017, the situation changed. New research and documents will reveal “in a high probability” that the real spoliated picture was actually the one exposed at Orsay. This high probability has become deep conviction » for Emmanuel Coquery. « We looked at all the assumptions, but we concluded that it would have taken a second Nora Stiasny chart that was never identified, which was a very small probability. All the clues converged. »

The Musée d'Orsay and the Ministry of Culture have therefore decided to restore the painting. But once he entered the national collections, he could not leave without a law. It was first voted in Parliament last year. “ It was an eminently political decision, confides Emmanuel Coquery. It was also supported by all parties and passed unanimously. »

Rose bushs under the trees Gustav Klimt, spoliated to Nora Stiasny

Episode 3: Unknown at this address

Nature morte au jambon de Floris van Schooten.

It is the story of a upheaval, then a appeasement. Since 2013, Marion Bursaux has been researching her family history, tinged with secrets and unspoken. Some of these questions will find an answer in 2018, when she is contacted by a team of genealogists: Marion Bursaux is the great-granddaughter of Mathilde Javal’s sister, herself daughter of Émile, the buyer of two still lifes of the XVIIe century stolen by the Germans in Paris during the Occupation and exhibited at the Louvre Museum. Like 47 others, she was recognized as the rights holder of these works. “ It was for me the recognition that what I was looking for about the violence suffered by my family was there, concrete. »

Marion Bursaux had little knowledge of her past. “ I found a number of things but they didn’t go very far. Nevertheless, I understood that members of my family had gone to deportation ", she says. Through these two tables, the puzzle has gradually been built. " This recognition of the state gave me the opportunity to return to my family and find my ancestors. It took me ten years to get them as familiar as if I’d met them. »

The two still lifes also allowed her to form a «small nucleus» of cousins whose existence she had never known before. With them, she went to the Louvre last year to look at the paintings for the first time. “ We were gathered around something that belonged to a common ancestor. This story is not only mine, but also that of people who also do their research. This process is a way to reclaim its history and identity. »

Still life with ham of Floris van Schooten and Food, fruit and glasses on a table Pieter Binoit spoof Emile Javal

Episode 4: The Seven Differences

L'Odorat, Manufacture de Mortlake

It is the story of a few details that make all the difference between two copies of a tapestry of the Royal Manufacture of Mortlake, allegory of smell. One of them belonged to the Drey family, an influential Jewish family in Munich in the 1930s, which was forced to sell its works of art in 1936. « The Nazi persecution laws imposed so many taxes on the Drey that they were forced to sell them for less than the market price. », explains Elsa Vernier-Lopin, from the mission of search and restitution of the cultural property plundered between 1933 and 1945.

This tapestry was purchased in 1994 by the Labenche Museum in Brive-la-Gaillarde and spotted in 2016 by the heirs. The mission comes into play in 2019 to answer a question: how to ensure that the tapestry exhibited in Brive is the one that belonged to the family? « We were lucky to have several photos of the tapestries in color and black and white, which is rare Elsa Vernier-Lopin continues. The mission will be embarking on a game of seven mistakes. “ Some iconographic motifs were different like a fruit basket. There were also differences in the material state of the work: on one of the tapestries, the monkeys were reticulated and this can be seen because there is a lighter halo in this area Elsa Vernier-Lopin says, all of these differences will establish that the tapestry of the Labenche Museum is that of the Drey family.

The heirs and the museum decide to agree: the work will remain in Brive who buys the tapestry. It is now on display at the Labenche Museum, which reopened its doors last February, with explanatory panels on the origin and spoliation of the work.

The Smell, Royal Manufacture of Mortlake, tapestry stripped of the Drey family

Episode 5: Letters Stolen Twice

Archives personnelles de Michel Georges Michel.

Letters from Matisse, Rostand, Colette, poems by Apollinaire, drawings by Picabia, but also press articles and manuscripts. All these documents are part of the rich collection of Michel Georges-Michel, artist, journalist and social columnist very introduced in the artistic and cultural milieu of the early XXe century.

These personal archives were stored in the apartment that the writer, aware of the dangers he would face as a Jew, fled to the United States during World War II. These documents were looted by the Germans then confiscated by the Soviets who will keep them until the 2000s before they are returned to France and stored in the cellars of the SGDL, the Society of Writers. " This represents about forty boxes with those belonging to another person whose traces we have not found ” recalls Emmanuelle Favier, a member of the SGDL. She is the one who, in 2019, examines these documents more specifically. At that time, she prepared a book that evoked these stories of dispossession and learned about the existence of this fund, which she eventually accessed. “ The object itself is quite fabulous with Cyrillic characters, she describes. The cardboard boxes are damaged but the documents in good condition of preservation despite its century of existence and the road traveled. »

The author will then play an intermediary role between the SGDL and the Ministry of Culture and will participate in the restitution of archives to rights holders in June 2020. « It is an absolutely moving moment because when you are a writer, you always wonder about meaning, your role in society. When you participate in a restitution, it is a moment of emotion and anchorage in reality. »

Literary and personal archives stolen from Michel Georges-Michel

Episode 6: Surviving Paintings

Composition, Fédor Löwenstein

After the war and just before his death in 1946, Fédor Löwenstein probably passed by his paintings, stored in Paris. « He never knew they were missing, must have thought they had been destroyed, so he never applied for them back », explains Florence Saragoza, now curator of heritage at the National Museum and Pau Castle Estate.

At the time of the DRAC Nouvelle-Aquitaine, she conducted research on all the MNR (National Museums Recovery) works present in the museums of the territory, at the time between free zone and occupied zone. She takes a closer look at three paintings by Fédor Löwenstein, a little-known artist whose style oscillates between cubism and abstraction. « He was one of those artists who came from Eastern Europe to participate in the artistic influence of Paris during the interwar period. It is particularly serious in André Lhote’s entourage. »

In 1939, he sent these three paintings by boat for an exhibition in New York via the port of Bordeaux. They never went to sea. Worse, they will go back to Paris for the Jeu de Paume museum and its «hall of martyrs» for works deemed not worthy of interest by the Germans. « They will even be marked with a red cross, like a student who has returned a bad copy. The Nazi regime rejects art that tends towards abstraction and paintings that do not respond to their canons of beauty and color. »

The joint research of the National Museum of Modern Art and the DRAC Nouvelle Aquitaine will lead to an exhibition of his works at Bordeaux Museum of Fine Arts. " The city was concerned by the collaboration and this museum was particularly instrumentalized, pursues Florence Saragoza. Other works have been blocked at the port, some have been identified on the spot, others have gone to wine residences, resorts of great collectors. »

The Poplars, Trees and Composition by Fedor Löwenstein spoof the artist