10 October 2016

Deconstructing the Jeu de Paume

by Marc Masurovsky

The process of understanding what exactly unfolded at the Jeu de Paume museum in German-occupied Paris between late 1940 and July 1944 has been in the works for close to a decade.

Jeu de Paume in 1861

The Jeu de Paume museum, emptied of its contents because of the impending German entrance into Paris in 1940, became the  most important processing center for art objects looted by German and French agents from Jewish owners, mainly in the Paris area but also from sites throughout German-occupied France, and to a lesser extent from Belgium and the Netherlands. The collections seized in Belgium and the Netherlands represent but a fraction of what was removed from France and processed through the Jeu de Paume.

For four years the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) staff managed that processing center to which thousands of objects were brought in crates provided by Parisian moving companies.
Typical truck and crate operation at the Louvre

ERR staffers unpacked them, assessed their appearance, condition and importance. Based on their recommendations, these objects were catalogued, inventoried, carded, and either shipped to the Reich or handed over to other German agencies for sale through the Paris art market.

Many post-WWII art restitution cases filed in Europe and in the United States are rooted in the events that transpired at the Jeu de Paume.

What is involved in the deconstruction of the Jeu de Paume?

The bulk of the reconstruction relies almost exclusively on a close examination of primary source documents which attest to the confiscation, transfer, stockpiling, inventorying, cataloguing, carding, and shipment of art objects which were forcibly removed from their Jewish owners.

These documents include, but are not limited to:

-Cards designed and filled out by ERR staffers describing the objects processed at the Jeu de Paume. These cards were also completed in other ERR centers

—in Brussels (Belgium), Fussen/Neuschwanstein (Bavaria, Germany), the Louvre (Paris, France). and Kogl (Austria).
ERR card describing a Rothschild item

-Inventories were produced by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) art specialists in Belgium, France, Germany, and Austria;

-the typewritten version of the handwritten notebooks compiled at great risk by Rose Valland, curator at the Jeu de Paume whose hierarchy asked her in effect to spy for them and document the hemorrhaging of “French cultural treasures” from their Jewish owners to various sites in Germany and Austria;

-restitution claims filed by surviving victims whose property was plundered by German agents between 1940 and 1944;

-wartime and postwar correspondence regarding the thefts authored by victims, perpetrators and witnesses;

-reports compiled by Allied intelligence agencies documenting acts of cultural plunder, including investigations into the actions of specific officials like Hermann Goering, Bruno Lohse, Robert Scholz;

-French police reports detailing their raids on Jewish-owned businesses and residences in close cooperation with German agents;

-records of French anti-Jewish agencies (Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives) responsible (and competing against the ERR) for confiscating Jewish-owned property and facilitating the Aryanization of their businesses.

The ERR staff photographed a number of the confiscated objects. Not all of the objects carded and inventoried were photographed. These photographs are scattered about in various archives throughout Europe—Belgium, France, and Germany. Our task is to reunite them with the corresponding datasets. Their quality varies significantly based on the circumstances under which the photos were taken.

One set of photographs was taken rather crudely in 1940 and 1941. 
Marais aux songes, Max Ernst
 The objects were placed on an easel, a handwritten label identified the alphanumeric code assigned to the object by the ERR, and the object was photographed together with the easel. In other words, the first photographs were produced amateurishly and did not reflect a coordinated policy of treatment of the confiscated objects. Once the Jeu de Paume operation was rationalized and structured under the guidance of Bruno Lohse and other art specialists of the ERR, the photographs took on a more professional quality, often printed on high-end photographic paper.

The official tally reported by French and Germany officials of the number of objects processed at the Jeu de Paume is slightly above 21000. This figure, which I rounded off, has been oft-repeated since 1945 and comes from the official records of the ERR itself and was confirmed by Rose Valland and other French officials after 1945.

The deconstruction of the Jeu de Paume has managed to challenge that official figure upwards and, by so doing, to clarify its meaning.

The 21000 or so objects that were “carded” by the ERR staff in its various depots throughout Europewere objects that the staff considered more from an esthetic viewpoint than an ideological viewpoint. After all, if Nazi ideology had dominated the judgment of the ERR staff, thousands of objects would not have been inventoried or carded because of their “unworthiness” and, therefore, the official figure would have been much lower.

The number itself is low and does not reflect accurately the true extent of the thefts of Jewish-owned cultural assets and the proportion of those assets which entered and left the Jeu de Paume.

Of note are the crates which contained confiscated items. The crates are the most important forensic measure of the actual number of objects which entered the Jeu de Paume from late 1940 to late July 1944. Crates were often assembled in the places of confiscation by the Parisian movers, they contained the fruits of the plunder. They were transported as such in trucks supplied by Parisian moving and storage companies to the Louvre and Jeu de Paume.

Their contents are not always provided in the available documentation. Hence, the Jeu de Paume database can only list the crates, the time at which they entered the Jeu de Paume and exited therefrom.

As of now, there are more than 33,000 datasets in the ERR database, each containing information on at least one object. Several thousand datasets pertain exclusively to crates and their contents, exclusive of the individual objects listed in the database. In other words, these crates contained objects that the ERR did not bother to inventory and/or card for reasons that are not yet clear.

The close examination of Rose Valland’s notes on the contents of crates passing through the Jeu de Paume is the closest that we will ever get to grasping the full extent of the Jeu de Paume operation, the number of collections that were processed there, and the fate of the objects contained therein both during and after WWII.

Crate inventory (partial)
In order of magnitude, the cards, when tabulated,  bring the total number of objects at the Jeu de Paume close to 21000. The inventories of the various collections processed at the Jeu de Paume provide a more accurate but not complete snapshot of the number of objects confiscated from individual Jewish owners. The total number of objects listed in the inventories brings us closer to 30,000 objects. If we add the crates with objects not tabulated in the cards or the inventories, the total number of objects could far exceed 40,000. And finally, the inventories of losses submitted by victims of Nazi and Vichy-sponsored plunder, when confronted with the German inventories, more often than not, contain far more objects than the German inventories. Hence, if we factor in the objects listed on victim inventories which were not carded or inventoried or listed in the description of crate contents, we must ask: where did those objects go since the apartments, mansions, estates, galleries and other sites containing those objects were virtually gutted of all their contents.

Once we reach the end of this exercise, we will be able to provide a more accurate picture of the scope and detail of the cultural plunder of Jewish victims of Nazi occupation and Vichy rule in France.

The process is long and painstaking, but it fulfills a vital mission: to understand the crime of cultural plunder, to document the confiscations, understand the path taken by the various objects during and after the war, and to paint a more complex picture of Nazi cultural policy in occupied territories, the impact of that policy on the art market, and the postwar fate of the objects removed by force from their owners’ possession.

This project is currently funded by the New York-based Conference of Jewish Material Claims against Germany (better known as the Claims Conference) as a joint project with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

The information on the Jeu de Paume can be found at www.errproject.org.