I watched two movies recently, both of which covered approximately the same storyline; which was the retrieval of art treasures looted by the Nazis from Jewish families, the Galleries and Museums of Occupied Europe, and anything else they could get their greedy hands upon. “The Monuments Men”, starring, amongst others; George Clooney, is a film version of the real live Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section of the American military machine. Working with minimal help, scrounging transport from other military groups who were just interested in firstly, staying alive; and secondly killing Germans: they succeeded in liberating much of the looted treasures of Occupied Europe. The signal aim for the real-life ‘Monuments Men’ was that they kept their promises, and returned, wherever possible, the stolen art to the legal owners.
A ‘Woman In Gold’, the story of a painting by Gustav Klimt turned into a film starring Helen Mirren & Ryan Reynolds covered the story of a small Austrian Jewish girl who watched, entranced, as her beautiful aunt was immortalised on canvas by the artist Gustav Klimt: who also watched, stunned, as her nation was overrun by Nazi thugs who routinely attacked and shamed any Jew they came across. She watched, just after her wedding day as the Gestapo led the German soldiers into their Vienna apartment, and all her family’s precious possessions, including the exquisite ‘Woman in Gold’: were grabbed by the Nazis. Spurred on by a fear which could not be expressed, some family members escaped to Western European countries, but the young couple made it all the way to America.
None of their relatives, who had ignored those same fears which had allowed the couple to escape; survived the Death Camps!
A young lawyer ignited the urge to reclaim her family’s property which was now in the firm Teutonic grip of an Austrian museum, where the portrait of ‘Woman in Gold’ was a prized exhibit. The young lawyer and the elderly Jewish lady battled the Austrian Art Establishment, fought, including in their struggle the U.S. Supreme Court: and finally triumphed, with the Klimt restored to her.
Not so happy a fate for the objects which were restored to the French authorities: while thousands were restored to either the original owners or galleries where they had been looted; but the French state kept 2,143 of them — even today, experts say it is unclear how they were chosen. The government placed them in an inventory called the Musées Nationaux Récupération, or M.N.R., and entrusted them to museums. The Louvre has 807 such paintings. The Louvre management have now placed all the once-looted paintings, sculptures, works of art together, accepting that there are rightful owners maybe still living, but no-one has come forward to claim them. It is, of course, entirely possible that the only rightful claimants have one thing in common, that their ashes, dust and shades occupy a space in Poland, but I reckon the Louvre, and the M.N.R. should be trying a lot harder to establish if the only owners are out there somewhere: instead of mutely printing small cards saying “We don’t know who owns them, but they are rather nice; so we’ll just hang them together, and hope for the best!”