Madam President of the public establishment of the Musée d'Orsay and the Orangerie, dear Laurence des Cars,
Dear Haim Korsia, Chief Rabbi of France
Madam Ambassador for Human Rights, in charge of the international dimension of the Shoah, the spoliations and the duty to remember,
Master Alfred Noll,
Dear Ruth Pleyer,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It has been almost 76 years since weapons were killed in our Europe ravaged by the Second World War. Many of those responsible for the heinous crimes that have been committed have been prosecuted, tried and convicted and, as time goes by, most have now died.
The memory of Nazism and the Shoah continues to be built and transformed, without crumbling over time, quite the contrary. It took us many years to study, to understand the mechanisms of persecution and genocide, to know the actors, the places, the leaders, the accomplices, but also the heroes, or the righteous. This work is not finished. The story continues to be written.
In the world of culture, in museums and libraries, the memory of persecution and the Shoah is also present. Maybe she should be more. For cultural institutions throughout Europe have been linked to this history, in spite of themselves or sometimes by complicity; works of art and stolen books are always kept in public collections, objects that should not be there, who should never have been there.
We know that the persecution of Jews has taken many forms. Very often, before the methodical elimination, before the extermination, there were thefts of the Jews' possessions, ordered to abandon everything.
These disposals cover various realities: theft, looting, confiscation, “aryanisation” – to use the vocabulary of the Nazis and the Vichy regime – or sale under duress
Plunder is a vile act, the devastating consequences of which must be measured. Beyond dispossession, it constitutes a serious attack on the dignity of individuals. It is the negation of their humanity, their memory, their memories, their emotions. Today, plundered works that are not returned are sometimes the only property left to families.
If we are gathered here today, it is precisely to evoke one of these memories torn from its owners; and to announce to you the decision I have taken, in full agreement with the Prime Minister and the President of the Republic. We are going to start the procedure of restitution of Roses under trees, a painting by Gustav Klimt preserved in the Orsay Museum, to its rightful owners, the rights holders of Nora Stiasny.
Indeed, we are convinced of this today: it is indeed a work plundered in Austria in August 1938, a few months after the Anschluss.
The decision we have taken is obviously difficult: it amounts to bringing out from the national public collections a masterpiece, which is also the only painting of Gustav Klimt which France owned.
But this decision is necessary, indispensable. 83 years after the forced sale of this painting by Nora Stiasny, it is the accomplishment of an act of justice.
Roses under trees is a painting. She cannot speak to us, and yet she carries within her, forever, these tragic destinies, these broken lives. She is the last witness of these women and men, whose will, criminal and relentless, has stubbornly sought to make disappear.
The upcoming restitution is an act of recognition of the suffering and crimes suffered by the Zuckerkandl and Stiasny families, and the just return of property that belongs to them.
The reconstruction of the journey of this work, until its acquisition in 1980 as part of the prefiguration of the Musée d'Orsay, was particularly difficult, due to the destruction of most of the evidence and the erosion of family memory. Moreover, as the Nazis did for the entire genocidal enterprise, the actors of this 1938 plunder have themselves erased the traces of their crime.
But the research, despite the difficulties, continued.
In 1995, in his founding speech of the Vél’d’hiv’, President Jacques Chirac officially recognized France’s participation and responsibility in the abuses and deportations of the Jews of France. Since then, our successive Governments have continued to pursue this work of research, of introspection, indispensable to the establishment of truth and recognition due to the victims.
Since the Mission d'étude sur la spoliation des Juifs de France, known as the Mattéoli mission, in 1997-2000, France, with the Commission pour l'indemnisation des victimes de spoliations (CIVS), and the Fondation pour la mémoire de la Shoah, has sought to shed light on spoliations, and to compensate the dispossessed and their descendants. Significant research has been undertaken by the Department of Culture and the national museums. We have made good progress, but we still have much to learn about the itinerary of the stolen goods, the provenance of the works of our museums or the goods that circulate today on the art market. A little less than a decade ago, the Ministry of Culture and museums embarked on a methodical examination, still in progress, of the provenance of MNR («National Museums Recuperation») works, found in Germany after the war, brought back to France, and which have been registered in a particular register, a provisional register... When one of these works has been plundered and the owner has been identified, we go to meet his rights holders, without waiting for a possible request, to offer them the restitution that is due them.
In 2018, a new milestone was reached. Responding to the Prime Minister’s request to “do better” in research and restitution of works of art, we decided, beyond MNR works, which do not belong to the national collections, From now on, we will be actively interested in works that have entered the collections legally, and whose previous provenance is problematic. To this end, the Ministry of Culture set up a mission in 2019 specifically dedicated to the identification of stolen works in the collections.
This mission, led by David Zivie, whose commitment I would like to commend as well as that of his teams, which are involved for a long time. Nor do I forget the central role, within our Directorate-General for Heritage and Architecture, of the French Museum Service. This new facility supports the work of museums that have undertaken such research. I am thinking in particular of the Louvre Museum, which is currently completing the review of acquisitions made between 1933 and 1945, to ensure that no objects previously stolen from a Jewish family entered the museum during this period.
In the course of this new research, perhaps – and probably even – we will discover works of dubious origin.
But for now, it is in order to provide a legitimate response to the family of Nora Stiasny, whose picture has been patient for too long in one of our national museums, that we are gathered.
Eleanor - Nora - Zuckerkandl was born in 1898 into a prominent family of the Austro-Hungarian Jewish upper bourgeoisie. His father Otto was a renowned physician, while his uncle Viktor Zuckerkandl, a steel tycoon, was a figure of the arts world, a patron, among others, of the artists of the Secession. Nora grew up in the cultural, artistic, intellectual effervescence of imperial and cosmopolitan Vienna at the turn of the century.
When Viktor and his wife died in 1927, their seven paintings of Klimt were sold or distributed among the members of the estate. The path of each canvas is complex to trace. As we understand it now, Roses under trees, which Viktor Zuckerkandl had bought in 1911, returned to Nora Stiasny.
With her husband Paul Stiasny, Nora lived in one of the villas of the Purkersdorf sanatorium near Vienna, founded by Viktor Zuckerkandl and built by Josef Hoffmann, which had become an innovative medical center as well as a resort of good society.
The Anschluss, in 1938, almost immediately led to the «aryanisation», as the Nazis said, of this sanatorium. Nora Stiasny’s property was gradually confiscated. In August 1938, under financial pressure, Nora Stiasny was forced to sell her painting of Klimt, then entitled Apple tree, to deal with the emergency, to try to survive.
Later, in April 1942, Stiasny and her mother Amalie were deported and murdered in Poland, in the Izbica ghetto or in the nearby Belzec extermination camp; they were both murdered. Nora’s husband, Paul, and their son, Otto, were deported to the Terezin camp near Prague and then to Auschwitz, where they did not return.
The August 1938 sale was organized by an acquaintance of Nora Stiasny, allegedly a friend, who was in fact the instigator of the plunder. Close to artistic circles, now a Nazi activist, this intermediary became the owner of the work until his death in the 1960s.
The trace of this forced sale having been lost, the painting could be put on sale in 1980 and acquired by the State for the future museum of Orsay.
I want to say it here: all the necessary checks were done. Extensive research had been conducted; but forty years ago, knowledge of the Zuckerkandl family and the course of Klimt’s works was much less than today. Given the information provided by the seller, the scientific publications of the time, and the contacts made with the last known members of the family, the national museums legitimately made this purchase.
It is in recent years that the true origin of the picture has been gradually established. The work of the Austrian researchers at the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna and you, dear Ruth Pleyer, who are accompanying Nora Stiasny’s rights holders and their lawyer, Alfred Noll, is to be commended.
The cooperation between Austrian and French researchers has been remarkable ever since the Austrian authorities first raised questions about the source of the painting and then the request for restitution made by Nora Stiasny’s family at the end of 2019. It was together that we managed to match the canvas that Nora Stiasny had been robbed of with that of the Musée d'Orsay, paving the way for restitution. I would like to pay particular tribute to the commitment of the teams at the Musée d'Orsay, notably Emmanuel Coquery, under the leadership of its president, Laurence des Cars, who played a driving and decisive role in this unprecedented undertaking.
As you know, Roses under trees is part of the national collections. Unlike a MNR (National Museums Recovery) work, it cannot be immediately restored, because it is protected by the principle of inalienability, a principle of legislative rank enshrined in the heritage code.
Also, convinced that it is up to us to do justice to the rights holders of Nora Stiasny, the Government will present as soon as possible a bill to authorize the release of this work from the national collections.
I would like to end by inviting you to admire again Roses under trees, whose presence here is a true privilege.
For my part, I find that the ornamental refinement of this landscape gives rise to a tremendous serenity and confidence in human creation.
Some may see in the tragic history of the Zuckerkandl and Stiasny a denial of this promise of humanity.
For me, this new stage in the history of the painting, its next return to its true owners, is on the contrary a formidable reason for hope, as well as a source of inspiration to continue our research, with a view to further restitution.
The proposal for restitution of Roses under trees, a canvas of inestimable aesthetic value, testifies with the greatest strength to France’s commitment to render justice, and to maintain the memory of those denied the right to live. The story of Nora Stiasny is tragic; may this announcement of restitution contribute to the reparation expected by her family.