10 July 2011

A work of art is not a work of art

Source: ERR Project via Bundesarchiv
On 30 May 1947, the French “Commission de récupération artistique” (CRA) handed over 29 works and objects of art to the “Office des Biens et Intérêts Privés” (OBIP) because it ruled that they could not be considered as being part of the “Patrimoine National.” The CRA’s decision was founded on a definition of what constitutes a “work of art” determined at a 2 November 1945 session of the CRA. In other words, the CRA came up with its own definition of what a “work of art” is …. or is not.

The “Patrimoine National” is literally the “national heritage,” a fluid concept applied to any item that is deemed to be incorporated into the heritage of a nation. Although this is not the time to engage in a full-scaled discussion of what is worthy of being considered as part of the national heritage, suffice it to say that the definition is highly malleable and subject to the fleeting whims of governments. However, once an object enters the “patrimoine national,” it is unlikely that it leaves it…ever. If the item turns out to have been looted during a military conflict or, worse, an act of genocide, regardless, restitution is nigh impossible because the “patrimoine national” trumps the rights of individuals if they seek restitution of items that have become part of the heritage of a nation.

None of the items could be officially linked to a particular owner as they were labeled by the Germans as MA-B (Möbel-Aktion Bilder) or Unb (Unbekannt)… except for one.

Slight oversight on the part of the French government or just plain sloppiness?

The item in question was labeled “KS 538 – 6432.” It was described as a cartel signed by the French painter Prud’hon and entitled “Femme au bain.”

KS 538-6432
Source: MCCP Database via Bundesarchiv
The number 6432 refers to a number assigned by US authorities at the Munich Central Collecting Point (MCCP). The MCCP card for item 6432 identified the painting by Prud’hon as a “bathing nymph”. There was another number assigned to the painting: SEL 531

SEL 531
Source: ERR Project via NARA
SEL is an acronym assigned by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) in Paris for any item looted from the Seligmann family. Therefore, the allegedly ownerless Prud’hon painting belonged to Seligmann whose antiques business at the Place Vendôme in Paris was thoroughly looted beginning in early July 1940.  The painting was restituted to the Jacques Seligmann Company on 15 January 1948 and its legal representative, René Fulda.

Let’s go back to the initial sentence which indicates that the CRA did not consider the painting to be part of the “Patrimoine National.” What would have happened if the CRA had ruled the Seligmann painting as belonging to the “Patrimoine national”? It would have been incorporated into a French museum collection. What about the rights of the Seligmann family to recover this work of art even if the CRA considered it to be part of the “Patrimoine National”? One has to wonder if the CRA even bothered to notify families whose works were deemed to be worthy of inclusion in the “Patrimoine National”?

More importantly, how does a French government agency decide whether or not a work of art is a work of art?