Defending National Treasures: French Art and Heritage under Vichy

Defending National Treasures: French Art and Heritage under Vichy

Defending National Treasures: French Art and Heritage under Vichy

Defending National Treasures: French Art and Heritage under Vichy

Synopsis

Defending National Treasures explores the fate of art and cultural heritage during the Nazi occupation of France. The French cultural patrimony was a crucial locus of power struggles between German and French leaders and among influential figures in each country. Karlsgodt examines the preservation policy that the Vichy regime enacted in an assertion of sovereignty over French art museums, historic monuments, and archeological sites. The limits to this sovereignty are apparent from German appropriations of public statues, Jewish-owned art collections, and key "Germanic" works of art from French museums. A final chapter traces the lasting impact of the French wartime reforms on preservation policy.

In Defending National Treasures, Karlsgodt introduces the concept of patrimania to reveal examples of opportunism in art preservation. During the war, French officials sought to acquire coveted artwork from Jewish collections for the Louvre and other museums; in the early postwar years, they established a complicated guardianship over unclaimed art recovered from Germany. A cautionary tale for our own times, Defending National Treasures examines the ethical dimensions of museum acquisitions in the ongoing noble quest to preserve great works of art.

Excerpt

On 2 May 1944, René Huyghe, director of paintings at the Louvre, wrote a friendly note to Jean-François Lefranc, a French art dealer who facilitated sales for Nazi collectors. Huyghe was a highly esteemed curator, art historian, and Resistance member who after the war would be elected to the Académie française and awarded the Legion of Honor. Lefranc was later sentenced to five years in prison for his wartime deals with works looted from Jewish collections.

What could these two men possibly have in common? a passion for world-class art. Writing from the chateau of Montal in southwestern France, where Huyghe monitored evacuated works of art from the Louvre and other museums, the curator regretted that he was not able to see Lefranc during a recent trip to Paris: “I would have liked to shake your hand and tell you how much I appreciate all of your dedication in promoting the Louvre’s interests in the Schloss affair.” Huyghe was referring to the temporary appropriation of forty-nine paintings from a looted Jewish art collection, which contained highly coveted paintings by Dutch and Flemish old masters. Although the forty-nine pieces eventually were returned to the Schloss family after the war, Huyghe had spent several months pursuing what he believed would be a permanent acquisition, raving to Lefranc that the masterpieces from the looted collection “greatly enhance the value of our Dutch gallery.”

Adolphe Schloss, a Jewish financier, had amassed the prestigious collection in the late nineteenth century. Born in Austria in 1842, he immigrated to France where he became a naturalized citizen in 1871. He built a sizable fortune as a commodities broker, and as his wealth grew, so did his art collection. Schloss became an autodidact in Dutch and Flemish art history and carefully selected paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van der Neer, and Frans Hals, and an array of less famous artists, displaying the treasured . . .

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