May 25, 2024

French government report 2022: The looting of works of art in France during the Occupation, organized, large-scale actions

Below is a translation into English of the following document:

 Le pillage des oeuvres d'art en France pendant l'Occupation  des actions organisées et de grande envergure

official public document, published online by the French Government, Ministry of Culture

(unofficial translation into English by Deepl and ChatGPT4)

The looting of works of art in France during the Occupation
Organized, large-scale actions

On September 1, 1939, the German army invaded Poland. True to their alliance treaties, England and then France declared war on Germany. Warsaw fell on September 28, and the Polish army capitulated on October 5. On April 9, 1940, Germany invaded Denmark, then Norway. The Western Front, on the other hand, remained at a standstill, during a period of waiting known as the “phoney war”. On May 10, German troops entered the Netherlands, French airfields were heavily bombed and Belgium was invaded. The Netherlands capitulated on May 15, Belgium on May 28. The Germans entered Paris on June 14, and the armistice between France and Germany was signed on June 22, 1940. Until 1944, France, the Netherlands and Belgium lived under German occupation. 

In France, the army was demobilized, the country divided into an occupied zone - north of the Loire and along the Atlantic - and an unoccupied zone, where the government set up its headquarters in the spa town of Vichy (this division ended on November 11, 1942, when the German army moved into the former “free zone”). Alsace and Lorraine were annexed to the Reich. On July 10, Marshal Pétain obtained the vote of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies on a law - unconstitutional in relation to the 1875 Constitution - giving him full powers to establish the “French State”. The German military commander in France (Militärbefehlshaber in Frankreich, MBF), based in Paris, was in principle the supreme representative of German power in occupied France, but the embassy was responsible for all political matters in the occupied zone, as well as relations with the Vichy government. It was in this Occupation context that German appetites for works of art found their field of action, and the protagonists were numerous: the embassy, Alfred Rosenberg's and Goering's services played the leading roles. The Vichy regime's policy of Aryanization and sequestration also had various consequences for the fate of objects and works of art.

1. Reich Embassy seizures, June-October 1940

On February 6, 1946, on the 52nd day of the Nuremberg Trials, Charles Gerthoffer, representing France, began his presentation on the looting of works of art by highlighting the decisive role played by the Reich Foreign Office in the summer of 1940. As early as June 23, 1940, Otto Abetz drew up a report raising the issue of expropriating private property belonging to Jews and to people considered responsible for the causes of the war; Hitler then ordered the French private collections belonging to Jewish families to be placed under German control. Keitel, Chief of Staff of the Wehrmacht, transmitted this order on June 30, 1940 to the Governor of Paris, General von Bockelberg, specifying that the works would be marked with the name of their owner, to serve as a token in peace negotiations. Without delay, on July 1, 1940, Otto Abetz, Reich Ambassador to Paris, took the initiative and sent a note to Bockelberg, stating that he was in charge of the security arrangements and that the most valuable works should be deposited at the embassy, located at the Hôtel de Beauharnais, rue de Lille. Karl Epting, Abetz's collaborator and future director of the German Cultural Institute, had drawn up an initial list of eighty dealers and collectors, from which fifteen were selected for initial action. The Devisenschutzkommando did not wish to be involved in the seizures. Group 540 of the Geheime Feldpolizei carried out the first seizures on July 6 and 7, but on July 8, its chief, Oehme, sent a report stating that he did not wish to continue with these operations, on the one hand because they were technically too difficult to carry out and, on the other, because he feared they would damage the reputation of the Wehrmacht. Private property is protected in wartime by the Hague Convention of October 18, 1907, Article 46 of which stipulates that “private property may not be confiscated”. The situation remained deadlocked in July and August, as Abetz came up against the military administration and the Kunstschutz (Art Protection Service), headed by Count Wollf Metternich, who were in favor of banning the movement of the collections.

In the end, Abetz was only able to carry out the seizures for four days, from August 27 to 30, with the support of the Feldpolizei under Oehme. The action may have been brief, but it was far-reaching, as it affected leading collectors and dealers: first of all, the Rothschilds and the sumptuous collections they had assembled at the Hôtel de Pontalba, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré; the Galerie Jean A. Seligmann gallery, 23 place Vendôme, specialized in ancient art; those of Jacques Seligmann and André Seligmann, both also internationally renowned antique dealers; Georges Wildenstein, whose gallery at 57 rue la Boétie presented antique objects, master paintings and illuminated manuscripts of great value; Paul Rosenberg, Picasso's dealer, who also became Matisse's, and whose gallery was also on rue La Boétie; the Bernheims, dealers in French painters of the 19th and 20th centuries; Alphonse Kann, a great collector of Impressionists and modern painters, who lived in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Epting's list was well-crafted and the booty considerable.

However, Abetz, thwarted in this action by the opposing interests of other departments in Paris and Berlin, was unable to pursue it any further and was relieved of the operation.

2. ERR action

Installation of the ERR at the Louvre and Jeu de Paume

On September 17, 1940, responsibility for securing the works of art was entrusted to the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the organization in charge from July 1940 of confiscating Jewish and Freemason cultural property in the territories occupied by the Reich. The ERR's first objective was to remove works already seized from the embassy. This task fell to Hermann Bunjes, a Kunstchutz officer. He had to find a sufficiently spacious, practical and discreet storage facility. Bunjes came up with the idea of using the premises of the Louvre, which had been partially evacuated at the start of the conflict. He knew Paris well, where he had stayed there during his studies, taking courses in the history of sculpture at the École du Louvre. On October 5, accompanied by two officers, he went to the office of Jacques Jaujard, Director of the Musées Nationaux. Jaujard had no choice but to comply with the occupier's request. He offered to make available three large rooms previously occupied by the Department of Oriental Antiquities. Located on the first floor to the north of the Cour Carrée's west wing, with a door opening onto the courtyard, they allowed for discreet and convenient transportation. They were fitted with large windows that could easily be blinded from the inside. Installation went very quickly, and the first crates began arriving from the embassy on Sunday October 6. Bunjes had informed Jaujard that works seized from the collections of Édouard de Rothschild would be arriving in particular. The crates that arrived on October 6, 1940 did indeed contain works belonging to Édouard de Rothschild, but also to Maurice and Alphonse de Rothschild. Subsequent shipments on October 18, 19, 21 and 22 included crates of objects belonging to the collector Alphonse Kann and seized from his property in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. In the 5th shipment, on October 22, the Director of the Musées Nationaux was able to have a number of works from the Kann collection identified: La Douleur by Cézanne, a Degas, another Cézanne, a torso and a statue of a man  by Rodin. 

By the end of October, the premises at the Louvre appeared insufficient, and on November 1, the Jeu de Paume was made available to the ERR. This independent building stands in the heart of Paris, above the Place de la Concorde, in the Tuileries gardens; it is relatively isolated, ensuring security and discretion. The first crates from the Louvre arrived on October 30. Another advantage of the Jeu de Paume was that it had been used in the interwar period to present exhibitions by foreign artists. The exhibition rooms on the first floor were immediately put to use by the ERR: paintings were hung, carpets, furniture and statues were laid out. All these preparations were aimed at Field Marshal Goering, who arrived at the Jeu de Paume from his Normandy headquarters on November 3, and paid a long visit the following day. Goering gave decisive support to the ERR. In less than four years, he made twenty-one visits to the Jeu de Paume, selecting works to add to his personal collections. Each of these visits gave rise to intense preparations, intended in particular to prove the effectiveness of the service. By order of November 3, 1940, he had determined the recipients of the confiscated works, mainly Hitler and himself.

Organization and working methods

In 1940, Kurt von Behr was appointed head of the ERR. The organization of the service was closely studied by the Allies, thanks to archives recovered after the fall of the Reich and to interrogations of the main protagonists by the men of the Art Looting Investigation Unit in 1945. The main conclusions are set out in the report on the ERR drawn up at the time.2 A large part of the ERR's activity consisted of making an inventory of the objects seized. Objects stored at the Louvre were brought to the Jeu de Paume, where they were processed by art historians. Each work of art was recorded on inventory lists. Most of these lists were drawn up by owner3. On pre-printed forms, the Germans indicated the name of the owner, the address of the seizure, the date of the seizure, the date of entry into the Jeu de Paume, the date the inventory was drawn up and the name of the editor. The list was then compiled as precisely as possible, with the artist's name, the work's title or description, its dimensions, and the order number in the list; each owner was designated by an acronym (Ka for Kann, R for Rothschild, PR for Paul Rosenberg). Individual cards were also drawn up for each work, containing the same information. Works were marked on the back with the inventory number thus assigned, either directly in ink or by means of a small pre-printed label.

Once processed, the objects were sent back to the Louvre to be packaged for shipment. Between April 1941 and July 1944, the ERR sent 138 railcars containing 4,174 crates to Germany, representing some 22,000 lots. Günther Schiedlausky (1907-2003) had devoted his thesis, defended in 1934 and published in 1942, to Martin Grünsberg, an architect of the early 18th century; he subsequently worked in Berlin's museums4. Walter Borchers (1906-1980) came from the museums of Stettin. In a report dated August 22, 1942, Schiedlausky emphasized the operational difficulties he had encountered in drawing up complete inventories as and when items arrived. From November 1940 to February 1941, he had at his disposal only two part-time employees (Dr. Wirth and Dr. Esser) and another who stayed only one month (Dr. Jerchel). From April 1941, when shipments to Germany began, they were frequently accompanied by one of the specialists. He complained that he didn't have the books he needed for his work

Although this report was probably written to destabilize von Behr, and to ask for additional resources to carry out more systematic work, it should nonetheless prompt us to examine these lists and cards with vigilance. The ERR also had photographers at its disposal, initially from the Kunstschutz (Dr. Dannehl, Dr. Evers, Dr. Strenger), then from Karl Schloss and Rudolf Scholz, who had all the necessary equipment at their disposal. Photographs were attached to the cards, thus adopting modern methods for recording works of art, similar to those then being introduced in German museums. These images were also very useful for restitutions after the Liberation.

To carry out the seizures, the ERR used French removal firms and occasionally employed unemployed workers. Building security was provided by a military picket of eight soldiers, changed every two days, who stood guard inside and outside the building. French employees, under the direction of Rose Valland, ensured the physical operation of the building, and after registration, the seized objects were sent to Germany. The main depot was at Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, where a restoration workshop had been set up. Other depots were set up at Herrenchiemsee Castle, also in Bavaria, Kogl, Buxheim and, later, Nikolsburg and Seisenegg.

It seems that a significant proportion of the works appearing in the inventories drawn up by the ERR were seized by the German Embassy in the summer of 1940.

The 1941 seizures from the National Museums

The year 1941 was marked by the seizure of crates which had been entrusted by their owners to the custody of the National Museums and then evacuated with the museum collections. As early as spring, on April 11, the ERR seized 130 crates from the David-Weill collection at the Château de Sourches. This was one of the largest seizures made by the ERR during the Occupation, with an inventory of almost 2,900 items. Other seizures made in the evacuation depots of the Musées Nationaux during the summer of 1941 were on a much smaller scale. On July 7, 1941, at the Château de Chambord, the ERR seized the belongings of Mme Jacobson (3 cases, or 4 objects), Maurice Leven, Mme Roger Lévy (one case), M. Loewel, Herman Reichenbach, Léon Reinach (one case), then at Château de Brissac, on August 18, those of Naoum Aronson, Renée and Léonce Bernheim, Philippe Erlanger (3 cases), Raymond Hesse (4 cases, i.e. 15 items), Marcel Kapferer and Simon Lévy.

The ERR came under the authority of the Linz mission in April 1943. 

Those of the Kunstchutz seem to have carried little weight. Robert Scholz, on the other hand, was aware of smuggling and trafficking. In August 1942, a report, written on the initiative of Scholz and von Ingram with the help of Günther Schiedlausky, argued that seizure operations were being carried out in the greatest disorder, and that the reputation of the National Socialist Party could suffer now and in the long term if an international commission on the fate of confiscated property were set up after the war. They proposed that the ERR be confined to the task of preserving and cataloguing seized objects, and ensure that no valuable items seized under the Möbel-Aktion were sent to the Eastern territories.

In an April 1943 report to Hitler, Alfred Rosenberg described the work accomplished: 79 collections seized, including those of the Rothschilds, 10 convoys (92 wagons) transported to Germany between September 17, 1940 and April 15, 1943. In addition, 53 works were sent to Hitler and 594 crates delivered to Goering. On April 1, 1943, the inventory comprised 9,455 items (5,255 paintings, 297 sculptures, 1,372 pieces of furniture, 2,224 objets d'art, 307 textiles). It was this report, far more than earlier criticisms, that seems to have led to the reorientation of the ERR. Rosenberg's opponents sought to demonstrate that the ERR was in direct competition with the Führer's plan to create a major museum in Linz, Austria.

In a letter dated April 21, Martin Bormann informed Alfred Rosenberg that the ERR had been placed under the authority of the Linz mission. Alfred Rosenberg replied on May 4, affirming the irreplaceable role of the ERR and, in particular, the need for the organization to complete the cataloguing of the works in order, in his view, to pursue the discussions still open with the French government. 

From then on, activity dropped off considerably, and the ERR concentrated on cataloguing previously seized works and preparing their transfer to Germany. At this point, the ERR drew up most of the lists of works whose owners were unknown; they bore the acronym UNB, for “Unbekannt” (unknown)5. These inventories were drawn up by art historians Walter Borchers, Annemarie von Tomforde - who had defended her thesis on 18th-century garden sculpture in Frankfurt in 1941 - and Helga Eggemann. The anonymity of these works made them more difficult to return after the war. However, he continued to receive objects seized by the Dienststelle Westen, and carried out a number of other operations, including seizures in Nice in 1944. He was also responsible for drawing up inventories of goods located in buildings requisitioned by the German army.

3. The looting of apartments: The Dienststelle Westen and the implementation of the Möbel-Aktion

In May 1942, the looting of personal property by the German services took on a whole new dimension with the creation, on Alfred Rosenberg's initiative, of the Dienststelle Westen, headed by Von Behr6 . This service's mission was to seize “all furniture belonging to Jews who have fled, or to those who are about to flee, in Paris as well as in all occupied territories in the West, in order to supply all possible furniture to the administration in the East ”7 . The scale of the operation was staggering, with tens of thousands of homes completely moved between 1942 and 1944. A report by Von Behr, dated July 31, 1944, mentions 69,619 homes emptied, including 38,000 in Paris.The goods seized by the Dienststelle Westen as part of the Möbel-Aktion were divided up according to type, with the bulk originally destined for German families who were to settle in the eastern territories, a project later redirected to benefit those affected by the Allied bombing raids. Sorting was carried out by internees in three depots: the Magasins Généraux warehouses near the Gare d'Austerlitz, which housed up to 600 prisoners; the former premises of the Lévitan furniture store on rue du Faubourg-Saint-Martin; and the Cahen d'Anvers mansion on the corner of avenue d'Iéna, known as the Bassano depot.

A few rare photographs taken at the time, and the testimonies of those who worked there, reveal the implacable organization that governed the sorting of all kinds of objects after the seizures: clothes, bedding, household linen, crockery, small appliances, furniture, lamps and even toys. Nothing that might have made up a family's intimate daily life was spared. If, in the course of seizures, certain items appeared to be of artistic interest, the Dienststelle Westen transferred them to the ERR, who recorded them on specific lists distinguishing eighteen categories, each designated by an acronym: MA-B for Möbel-Aktion Bilder concerned paintings, drawings and graphic arts, MA-A for Asian art objects, etc.8 In each category, a sequential number was assigned to the object. In each category, a sequential number was assigned in chronological order of arrival, which today provides quantitative data, although it cannot be said with certainty that all the objects were indeed registered. In Le Front de l'art, Rose Valland gives a figure of 2,703 paintings and 2,898 furnishings.  These objects then followed the same route as those seized by the ERR itself, i.e. they were shipped to depots in Germany and Austria, where they were recovered by the Allies in 1945.

The ERR transferred the assigned number to the back of the painting in various ways: a small label with the printed words “Einsatzstab RR” and “Nr.” and a number in pencil [MNR 619] or black ink [ill. MNR 682, after Fragonard], or directly in black paint [MNR 780], or stencilled in white paint [ill. MNR 682, after Fragonard]. In general, the Dienststelle Westen does not seem to have passed on any indication of the owners' names to the ERR, which usually does not include them in its lists, making investigations difficult. Some cash registers arrive from sorting depots with the simple global mention “M.A.B. ”9. Exceptions are rare: MA-B 467 (Philippe Péreire), MA-B 477 (Larimow), MA-B 490 (Barlach), MA-B 728 (J. Brucannier), MA-B 984 (Willy Jaeckel), MA-B 1077 (R. Eberl) or the name “Juralides”, “rue Maubourg” for MNR 708 and 70910. Moreover, these are often objects whose iconography or level of quality hardly permit identification, often landscapes [MNR 615] or still lifes [MNR 677]. No historical information is available for the twelve paintings, five drawings and three pieces of furniture identified as coming from the Möbel-Aktion and held in the MNR collection. However, some items were returned at the end of the war, thanks to identification by their owners. 

The archives of the Dienststelle Westen, which could have provided lists of apartments, have been destroyed. On the other hand, the ERR was planning a program - probably never carried out - to hand over to the Dienststelle Westen works of art, mainly modern ones, which the ERR had no use for. This is how we can interpret a handwritten inscription “zck. an M-A. zum Verkauf” (= sent to the Möbel-Aktion for sale), always in the same hand, next to hundreds of typed references to works on ERR inventory lists. Surveys of the Alphonse Kann lists revealed that most of these works had remained in the hands of the ERR and had been found and returned.

4. Application of the Vichy racial laws: implementation of Aryanization by the General Commissariat for Jewish Questions

An essential element of the Vichy government's policy to exclude Jews and “Jewish influence” from all sectors of the economy and society, which began with the promulgation of the Statute of the Jews on October 3, 1940, Aryanization was codified and systematized in France by the law of July 22, 1941. This text represents a crucial step in the spoliation process. Prepared by the General Commissariat for Jewish Questions (CGQJ), created on March 29, 1941 and headed by Xavier Vallat, this law provided for the sale of all movable and immovable property belonging to people considered Jewish, with the exception of their main residence. The operations were to be carried out by provisional administrators, appointed with the authorization of the CGQJ, and the sums resulting from these sales were to be deposited in an account opened at the Caisse des dépôts et consignations in the name of the administered11. 

 “Through its CGQJ, through the regional directorates and local delegations of this organization, through the numerous and highly paid civil servants who constituted the latter, through the multitude of shady agents, suspicious policemen, stipendiary snitches, volunteer trackers and informers who were attached to them, the Vichy government had ensnared the country in an extremely tight network, from whose meshes no Jew in possession of any property could escape [.]12.”

The General Report of the Study Mission on the Spoliation of Jews in France established the staggering extent of Aryanization measures: just over 31,000 files for the Seine department, 11,000 files for the occupied zone, and 7,000 to 8,000 in the non-occupied zone. It appears that 25% of all Aryanized property, across all economic sectors, does not seem to have been returned, representing only 5 to 10% of the total value of these properties. The discrepancy between these two percentages is explained by socio-economic divides. Indeed, it was the Jews in modest professions, small merchants and artisans, foreigners, or recently naturalized individuals who constituted the largest number of Aryanization victims.

Aryanization affected both art and antique dealers for their businesses and collectors for their personal property. Regarding some prominent dealers considered Jewish under racial laws, it appears that the impact of these measures was limited since, by the summer of 1941, when the law came into force, major dealers and significant collections had already been seized by the German embassy and the ERR.

The sources for the study of Aryanization in France primarily consist of files from the General Commissariat for Jewish Questions, now preserved at the National Archives and which were remarkably and very detailedly inventoried in a publication from 1998. The same sub-series AJ38 also holds documents from the Restitution Service for Property of Victims of Laws and Measures of Spoliation, established after Liberation. Utilizing this collection concerning artworks is not easy due to the organization of the Commissariat itself: art businesses were not a specific category but were included in section VI, which also covered construction, furniture, decoration, and seemingly part of the second-hand market.

Additionally, the files from the section in charge of real estate must also be consulted since the sale of objects could be requested by the liquidator of real estate, often to be able to sell or rent the concerned premises. For example, there is evidence of the sale at the Hôtel Drouot in November 1942 of 199 works and pieces of furniture left at Alphonse Kann's in Saint-Germain-en-Laye after the seizures by the ERR. The provisional administrator of Kann's real estate, Élie Pivert, obtained nearly one million francs from the auctions conducted by Me Blond, the auctioneer. Another case involves the French Popular Party, the new tenant of the Bacri Gallery on Boulevard Haussmann, complaining about cluttered premises, leading Jourdan, the provisional administrator, to disperse the furniture and objects during an auction organized at Drouot on January 30 and then on May 19 and 21, 1943. The total of these three sessions amounted to more than 2,700,000 francs.

Despite these methodological difficulties, the examination of these files reveals the extent of Aryanization measures in the art trade. Out of the one hundred and sixteen businesses listed in the 1939 edition of the Annuaire de la curiosité et des beaux-arts, which catalogued the most reputable dealers, twenty-six were subjected to Aryanization procedures (not necessarily completed), representing more than 20%. Many major firms were affected, including Bernheim, Rosenberg, Kahnweiler, Wildenstein, Seligmann, and Bacri.

Additionally, antique dealers and gallery owners who were at risk under racial laws had already left occupied France, put their activities on hold, and secured their stocks. For instance, the provisional administrator Édouard Gras noted in October 1941 that Joseph Hessel had left for the occupied zone "with all existing stock," although this was incorrect, as the new tenants found a hundred paintings hidden in a small storeroom in May 1942. Gras also mentioned that a significant portion of the Jacques Seligmann Gallery's inventory was in the United States.

Moreover, some gallery owners' solid economic and legal knowledge and their extensive networks allowed them to find ways to circumvent Aryanization. The Wildenstein Gallery was assigned a provisional administrator, but daily management was handled by Roger Dequoy, a longtime employee. D.-H. Kahnweiler, a major dealer of Cubists and Fauves, transferred his business to his daughter-in-law, Louise Leiris. Nicolas Landau did the same with his daughter-in-law, Viviane Bougeaux. Zacharie Birtchansky's business was sold to an approved company, and this sale was confirmed after the Liberation.

Aryanization procedures were lengthy and cumbersome, requiring validation from the CGQJ and Occupation authorities. The three-year period from summer 1941 to summer 1944 did not allow all procedures to be completed, particularly for significant or complex financial cases. For example, the gallery Arnold Seligmann, whose capital of 4 million francs was owned by Jean A. Seligmann and Armand Seligmann, faced complications. After Jean's execution on December 15, 1941, for resistance activities, part of the capital was to go to his two young sons, Guy and Claude, raising the question of whether they should be considered Aryan. This issue remained unresolved by the Liberation.

The wealthiest individuals, including those with portfolios and securities, renowned merchants, and industrialists, held the majority of the looted assets. Better able to protect themselves during the war, they were also more likely to recover their property or the owed sums after the Liberation.

The gallery owners, antique dealers, and collectors listed in the Annuaire de la curiosité undoubtedly belonged to this category. After the war, they generally managed to release the funds held in their name at the Caisse des dépôts et consignations. As in many other commercial sectors, amicable restitutions were easier if the provisional administrator was knowledgeable in the field, allowing discussions to take place between professionals.

The most challenging aspect seems to have been recovering premises and business names. For example, upon returning from New York, the dealer Paul Rosenberg faced significant difficulties in reclaiming the building at 21 rue La Boétie. However, these obstacles were not unique to art dealers; they affected nearly everyone who suffered from looting, with provisional administrators often selling the businesses and dispersing the rest through public sales. The proceeds from such sales (24,760 francs) were only a small part of the total liquidation proceeds deposited with the Caisse des dépôts et consignations (172,671 francs). While some amounts were very low, as in the previous case, others were more substantial. For instance, the sale of the stock from the store Fils de Simon Helft, specializing in antique silverware, amounted to 350,000 francs. The 89 paintings found at Joseph Hessel’s were sold through three private sales and one auction at Drouot (listed in the Annuaire with the note “séquestre J.H.”) for a total of 120,000 francs. Aryanization sales could also occur during inheritances, as seen in the dispersion of John and Anna Jaffé's collection in July 1943 in Nice.

The restitution of looted assets was a fundamental principle affirmed by Free France and later by the Provisional Government. Its implementation, complex and extensive, was supported immediately after the war by regulatory texts, notably the ordinance of April 21, 1945, and by the actions of the Restitution Service created at the very beginning of 1945, led by the remarkable and highly effective Professor Émile Terroine. A comprehensive report was established within the framework of the Study Mission on the Spoliation of Jews in France.

5. Museums and Collections Under Sequestration, Pursuant to the Law of July 23, 1940

Another provision of the Vichy government, preceding the first Statute of Jews on October 3, 1940, and affecting a very limited number of people, concerned significant collectors. The law of July 23, 1940, declared that any French citizen who had left the country between May 10 and June 30, 1940, to go abroad without authorization would be stripped of their French nationality. Article 2 stipulated that their property would be placed under sequestration and liquidated within six months, with the proceeds of these sales being paid to the National Relief Fund.

Relying on this law, the decree of September 6, 1940, revoked the citizenship of Pierre Cot, Édouard, Philippe, Henri, Robert, and Maurice de Rothschild, Léon and Maurice Stern, David David-Weill, Édouard Jonas, Henri de Kérillis, Geneviève Tabouis, Mrs. Émile Buré, Gérard dit Pertinax, and Élie-Joseph Bois. The assets of these five Rothschild family members were placed under sequestration by the Ministry of Production, and sequestration administrators were appointed as of September 10. The declared objective for the French administration was "to prevent the German authorities from taking control of these assets, which are of great importance to the national economy."

The law of October 5, 1940, entrusted the management and liquidation of the sequestered assets to the State Property Administration. On October 10, 1940, Jacques Jaujard explained to General Laurencie, Vichy's representative in the occupied zone, that a significant portion of the art collections of the French who had been stripped of their nationality risked being seized by the German authorities and thus removed from the responsibility of the State Property Administration. For the German authorities, "all measures taken after the start of the war regarding property transfer, expropriation, deposit, seizure, and other dispositions concerning Jewish property are, with respect to the Reich, null and void and legally ineffective," as stipulated by Hitler's decree of September 17, 1940. The chosen solution was to consider that museums would acquire the artworks and pay the corresponding amounts to the National Relief Fund.

Jaujard was able to convince the French administration that the best way to protect artistic assets from the occupier's control was for the National Museums Directorate to take over the sequestered art collections. To this end, he served on the Sequestration and Liquidation Committee and secured significant funds for this purpose in January 1942. The Ministry of Finance released an exceptional credit of 66 million francs, a substantial amount given that the acquisition budget for museums in 1941 was set at 7 million francs. Despite this, the results achieved were ultimately quite limited.

The 60 million francs eventually spent were distributed over seven collections, three of which belonged to members of the Rothschild family, and one to the Masonic lodge of Bonne-Foi in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where the museums acquired five armchairs for the Château de Versailles. In the other three collections, the museums made preemptions for only a few items of average quality.

Nearly the entire budget was actually spent on the Rothschild collections, mainly in the non-occupied zone, specifically those of Maurice (33 million francs), Henri, and Robert. Maurice de Rothschild's collections stored in Argelès-Gazost (Hautes-Pyrénées) were sequestered by a court order from the civil court of Lourdes on September 13, 1940, and transferred to the Château de Lourdes, then to Mende, the Montauban depot, and finally the Château de Montal. Fourteen crates marked with the initials R.R. for Robert de Rothschild, found in a barn in Rimeize (Lozère), and fifteen crates belonging to his family members, entrusted to M. Aiguillon, a general councilor of Lozère in Saint-Chély-d'Apcher (Lozère), were first gathered in Mende, then transferred in April 1941 to Montauban, one of the national museums' depots, and finally to Montal in March 1943.

Restitutions to the rightful owners were made after the war under the ordinance of April 21, 1945, on the nullity of acts of spoliation, with the owners having to pay sequestration management fees. Some restitutions were done quickly, like the May collection, returned to its owner in July 1945, while others took longer to resolve (e.g., the restitution of the Bois collection, which was not completed until 1954 due to an apparent dispute among the heirs). For the Rothschilds, some crates were returned shortly after the Liberation, with the rest of the collections being restituted between February 13 and April 10, 1946. The loss of a crate of porcelains resulted in compensation.

In a way, the fate of the Rothschilds' assets, despite their exceptional nature, illustrates the various directions of Vichy France's policies and the actions of its administrations. On one hand, the racial discrimination regime implemented by the Pétain government could incidentally bring substantial economic and financial benefits; on the other hand, there was a desire to preserve the "national" heritage, whether it was or had been in private hands.


1. Notes de Jacques Jaujard au comte Wolff Metternich, 7, 21, 23 octobre et 2 novembre 1940 (Paris, archives des musées nationaux, R2 « Correspondance du directeur des musées avec le Kunstchutz »).

2. Office of Strategic Services, Art Looting Investigation Unit, Consolidated Report no 1, 15 août 1945 : Activity of the Einsatzstab Rosenberg in France (consultable en ligne à l'adresse

3. Ces listes sont aujourd'hui conservées aux Bundesarchiv de Coblence (B323/266 à B323/292).

4. Günther Schiedlausky fit quelques années de prison après la guerre, puis poursuivit l'essentiel de sa carrière au Germanisches Museum de Nuremberg (voir Ralf Schürer, «Zum Tode von Günther Schiedlausky (1907-2003)», dans Anzeiger des Germanischen Nationalmuseums, 2004, p. 169-171.

5. Bundesarchiv de Coblence, B323/293.

6. Sur ces opérations qui ont touché plusieurs dizaines de milliers d'appartements, voir Annette Wieviorka et Floriane Azoulay, Le Pillage des appartements et son indemnisation, rapport de la Mission d'étude sur la spoliation des Juifs de France, Paris, Documentation française, 2000, 111 p. ; Jean-Marc Dreyfus et Sarah Gensburger, Des camps dans Paris, Austerlitz, Lévitan, Bassano, juillet 1943-août 1944, Paris, Fayard, 2005, 324 p. ; ainsi que le documentaire d'Antoine Perreaux-Forest, Des camps dans Paris, 2005, 52 min. ; et enfin l'exposition La Spoliation des Juifs à Paris : retour sur les lieux, organisée par Sarah Gensburger au printemps 2007 dans les anciens magasins Lévitan (exposition sans catalogue). On peut aussi consulter une excellente mise au point pour la Belgique dans Les Biens des victimes des persécutions anti-juives en Belgique, rapport final de la Commission d'étude sur le sort des biens des membres de la Communauté juive de Belgique spoliés ou délaissés pendant la guerre 1940-1945, Bruxelles, juillet 2001, 2 vol. p. 119-133.

7. Note adressée par Alfred Rosenberg à Hitler le 18 décembre 1941, qui reçut une réponse positive, signée Lammers, le 31 décembre 1941.

8. Ces listes sont consultables aux Bundesarchiv de Coblence et aux archives du ministère des Affaires étrangères (BAK : 323/298 tome a et b, copies MAE : C 97 A 18, C95 A 13 et C 98 A 19).

9. D'après une note de Rose Valland du 10 avril 1943.

10. D'après Anja Heuss, Kunst-und Kulturgutraub, Heidelberg, 2000, p. 128

11. Sur ce sujet, voir le rapport de la Mission d'étude sur la spoliation des Juifs de France, Aryanisation économique et restitution, rédigé par Antoine Prost, Rémi Skoutelsky et Sonia Étienne, Paris, Documentation française, 2000. Les travaux pionniers sur le sujet sont dus à Joseph Billig.

12. Professeur Émile Terroine, déclaration du 29 décembre 1944.

13. Inventaire des archives du Commissariat général aux questions juives (CGQJ) et du Service de restitution des biens des victimes des lois et mesures de spoliation, sous-série AJ38, par M.-Th. Chabord et J. Pouëssel, Paris, Centre historique des Archives nationales, 1998, 325 p., index. Le fonds compte 60 000 dossiers correspondant à 3 640 cartons.

14. Lettre de Gras au CGQJ, 14 février 1944 (Paris, Archives nationales AJ38/2799/329)

15. Antoine Prost, Rémi Skoutelsky, Sonia Étienne, op. cit.

16. Rapport de synthèse des préfets, 4 octobre 1940 (Paris, A.N., AJ41/397, consultable en ligne sur le site de l'Institut d'histoire du temps présent,

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