Musées Nationaux Récupération (MNR: National Museums - Recoveries)
In general, it is estimated that 100,000 works of art were despoiled during the German occupation, particularly from Jewish victims targeted by racial laws; we should also add to this number all the works sold on the art market under the pressure of events by French people or refugees from the countries annexed by the Reich.
In terms of this despoilment, French law is dominated by the Ordinance of 12 November 1943 on the nullity of acts of despoilment carried out by or under the control of the enemy. This text is reaffirmed by the Ordinance of 21 April 1945, which establishes the principle of returning property to the victims of these acts, a text that follows the Ordinance of 9 August 1944 on the restoration of republican legality. It should be noted that the legislator understands the term “despoilment” to refer to all forms of appropriation, whether veritable despoilment, i.e. legalised theft, or presumed “seemingly voluntary” forced sales to a gallery or auction.
More than 60,000 works were returned from Germany after the war, and the Artistic Recovery Commission established following the war returned nearly 45,000 of them by 1949. Around 2,000 of the remaining works are in the custody of French museums, national museums or regional museums, such as the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen, and may be returned to families when these families can be identified. The catalogue of MNR works is available online on the Rose Valland website.
The origins of MNR works can be grouped into various main categories. First of all, there are those that really were despoiled, but whose victims are now rarely identified in German, American or French public archives,
where they exist, for MNR works that have not yet been returned. Then, there are works that have gone on the art market. However, it is often difficult to access the archives of private galleries when they are stored (curiously, many of them seem to have disappeared…). When works have been sold at auction, the records of auctioneers may provide valuable information. Finally, there is a group of works whose origins before their return from Germany are completely unknown, and which did not necessarily belong to French collectors. However, none of the MNR works can be returned when it is established that the transaction, for example an auction sale, was actually voluntary, especially if the seller was not targeted by racial laws.
For a long time, the Ministry of Culture reviewed requests for restitution that it received. Today, the Ministry pursues a policy of voluntary restitution and also tries to identify current MNR works’ owners at the start of the occupation in order to return them to families, regardless of the claims it receives. This enables the Ministry to return several works each year.
Thierry Bajou, Chief Heritage Curator of the Ministry of Culture