The Louvre agrees to compensate donor’s daughter for three paintings

1. Pieter Claesz (c. 1597-1660)
Still-life with Musical Instruments, 1623
69 x 122 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : Musée du Louvre/A. Dequier - M. Bard

17/9/09 – Restitution – Paris, Musée du Louvre – Born in Vienna in 1890, Friedrich Unter directed an important textile business. As a Jew, he was imprisoned by the Gestapo in March 1938 after the AnschluB, and liberated in exchange for handing over most of his heritage to Nazi Germany, renouncing his Austrian citizenship and leaving the country.
After finding refuge in France in July 1938, he and his family settled in Aurillac where, along with his associate Otto Anninger, he attempted to set up his business thanks to what was left of the fortune not confiscated by the Germans. As he spoke and wrote French fluently, he immediately applied for French citizenship. Having received no response, he again requested naturalization in December 1938 and at the same time offered to donate three paintings to the Louvre. These works were stored in crates at the customs offices in Pantin. The offer also included the furniture he had been allowed to take when leaving Vienna. He was careful to state that this donation was made “in his capacity as a Frenchman”. This exchange of “French nationality” for three paintings had been suggested to him by French government employees but could not be stated overtly [1]. The manner in which the offer is expressed leaves no doubt, however, concerning the condition implicit in the donation.

2. Jan II de Heem (1650 ?-after 1695)
Vanitas with Flower Bouquet and Pipe, 1685
69 x 58 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : Musée du Louvre/F. Raux

While the offer was accepted at lightning speed, on 4 April 1939, the application for naturalization took much longer and was finally refused on 7 September 1939 with the explanation that it did not meet the requirement of “three years residence in France”. Friedrich Unter was in the United States at that time on business and did not return to France. He eventually acquired American citizenship. Starting on 25 November 1939, he attempted to recover the paintings donated to the Louvre as well as the rest of the furniture still held by customs, but finally taken away by the Germans. He continued to request the restitution of his goods until his death in 1954.

The three works are the following :

-  Pieter Claesz, Still-life with Musical Instruments (ill. 1).

-  Jan II de Heem, Vanitas with Flower Bouquet and Pipe (ill. 2). This painting appears at the Louvre as being an Otto Anninger donation. Although it belonged to Friedrich Unter, it was donated under his associate’s name so that Anninger might also benefit from the same arrangement, but this also failed.

3. Francesco Trevisani (1656-1746)
Darius’ Family at Alexander’s Feet, vers 1737
Oil on canvas - 73 x 98 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : Musée du Louvre/A. Dequier - M. Bard

-  Francesco Trevisani, Darius’ Family at Alexander’s Feet (ill. 3) which was not yet identified at the time and entered the museum with an attribution of the 18th century French school. Very recently, Friedrich Unter’s daughter again demanded that the Louvre and the Direction des musées de France restitute these works, although allowing for the possibility of a negotiation. After studying the file, the Minister of Culture concluded that this was a legitimate request and accepted to compensate the donor’s heir [2]. For the moment, the details of the financial agreement, however, remain vague [3].

Although it may be unfortunate that museums, with increasingly tighter budget restrictions, are obliged to spend money for objects they already own, we can only approve this choice. First of all on a moral level, as the 1939 government decision was not an honorable one. Secondly, for the integrity of the national collections : rather than restituting the works [4] and see them immediately sold off at auction to foreign museums, as was the case until now (see the regrettable example of the Gentili di Giuseppe paintings [5]). In France, only the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Strasburg had bought back, rather than restitute, a painting by Canaletto (see news item of 11/10/05, in French). At that time, this had been done contrary to the advice of the Direction des Musées de France. Thinking has thus seemed to have change on the subject.

Version française

Didier Rykner, jeudi 17 septembre 2009


[1] This is the only point for which there is no written proof, obviously for logical reasons.

[2] Estimates by the DMF and the Louvre are respectively : 1 000 000€ for the Claez ; 240,000€ for the de Heem and 120,000€ for the Trevisani. This money will go to create a foundation in memory of Austrian Jews victims of the Nazis.

[3] The compensation cannot be carried out by the Commision pour l’Indemnisation des Victimes de Spoliations (CIVS) as the affair is prior to its powers ; this agency can only see to cases happening after 16 June 1940, when Pétain formed his government.

[4] The Louvre does not own any other Pieter Claesz or Jan II de Heem works.

[5] Five paintings by Bernardo Strozzi, Moretto da Brescia, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Alessandro Magnasco and Rosalba Carriera had been returned to the rightful claimants.

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