EXHIBITION: PARIS IS RETURNING?

Published March 5, 2023
The Forest by Paul Cézanne (1892)
The Forest by Paul Cézanne (1892)

Enthusiastic fans, especially those belonging to an older generation, have been returning for years and years to Musée d’Orsay in Paris to admire works they already know by heart but find an immense pleasure in looking at again and again.

However, the news that a legal case launched by a group of collectors claiming many of these chefs d’oeuvres as their private properties is currently shocking a great number of art lovers.

What will happen if paintings like Gauguin’s Still Life with Mandolin, Cézanne’s The Forest and Renoir’s Waves at Guernesey are forced to leave the museum and are later sold at auctions for the benefit of these complainants?

But before we delve into that, it is important to discuss a French art dealer called Ambroise Vollard, whose name has jumped to unprecedented heights as a result of the legal battle surrounding these and many other art pieces.

Claims by descendants of a private art dealer could have lasting ramifications for the art world. Legendary works by Cezanne, Renoir and Gauguin may soon have to be returned

By the late 1920s, long before the Second World War began, Vollard was considered the most outstanding art dealer in Paris. His shop was inevitably crowded, day after day, by enthusiasts from the world over seeking his advice on acquiring paintings and sculptures, or by those willing to buy these artworks at high prices if Vollard himself already possessed them.

Ambroise Vollard’s portrait painted by Pierre Bonnard in 1904
Ambroise Vollard’s portrait painted by Pierre Bonnard in 1904

Vollard died in a car accident in 1939 without having named a successor to his treasures and, soon after, when Paris was under Nazi occupation during the Second World War, a large number of artworks were transferred from his studio, just like so many other collections, to one German city after the other.

Following the conquest of the war by the Allied Forces, hundreds of precious art objects were recovered in a number of various German towns and were then brought back to Paris in 1945, to be placed in French museums. However, to the following generations of art lovers, these details remained unnecessary, as long as they could enter their preferred museums and have the pleasure of looking at them.

But the surprise came exactly 10 years ago, when about a dozen descendants of the Vollard family filed a case in court, claiming the ownership of many art pieces in various French museums — most shockingly the above-mentioned paintings by Cézanne, Renoir and Gauguin at d’Orsay.

According to the well-known French art historian Jean-Marc Dreyfus, the lawsuit is very complicated and unprecedented, as these chef d’oeuvres were legally acquired by the French museums that today find themselves shockingly accused of possessing them illegally.

At the same time, many experts, one of them being the well-known central France based art critic Jean Lauvergeat, say the case is nothing new. In 2011, a legal procedure, which still remains unconcluded, was launched for the restitution of Gustav Klimt’s famous painting Rose Bushes Under the Trees to the descendants of a rich lady named Nora Stiasny. Stiansy had been ordered by German officers to sell it at a very low price in 1938 and was shot dead when she refused to obey them. This painting also remains, thus far, at the d’Orsay Museum.

On the other hand, reminds Lauvergeat, things can also go downhill. In 1998, the descendants of a well-known Italian art collector called Federico Gentili di Giuseppe had won their case after suing the Louvre, claiming five paintings that had been transferred to the museum from Germany following the Second World War.

Readers who are also movie fans will remember, or certainly be excited to see, the 1964 John Frankenheimer movie The Train, in which Burt Lancaster plays the role of a Frenchman who saves hundreds of artworks stolen by a Nazi general, who is trying to take them to Germany along a railway line.

Lauvergeat was proved right because, last week, the court announced its decision by ordering the museum to handover to the complainants the two Renoir paintings as well as the Gauguin and Cezanne works, as claimed by them.

The writer is an art critic based in Paris.
He may be reached on ZafMasud@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 5th, 2023

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