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  • Caroline Cassin

Two rooms in the Louvre in Paris are dedicated to works recovered in Germany. Interview.

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

Interview with Sébastien Allard, directeur du département des Peintures.

Le copyright : © Musée du Louvre / Antoine Mongodin

-What is the role of the Louvre in the recovery of looted artistic works? Can you explain the acronym and meaning of MNR to our readers?

We call MNR, “National Museums of Recovery”, the paintings recovered in Germany at the end of the Second World War and sent back to France because certain clues (archives, inscriptions, etc.) suggested that they came from there.

By generalization, the acronym designates in the mind of the public all types of works, even if in reality the sculptures are registered under the acronym RFR, the works of art under that of OAR, etc.

Most of these works consist of property looted in France by the Nazi regime, mainly from Jewish families.

From a legal standpoint, these works do not belong to the State, which is only the temporary holder. They are therefore not part of the public collections of museums in France and these works are not listed in the inventory of national collections.

They expect restitution to their legitimate owners, without a limitation date having been set for making the request.

Unreturned "MNRs" are still governed today by the decree of September 30, 1949, which specifies that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Archives Directorate) has legal responsibility and the Ministry of Culture has provisional custody.

To this day, the Louvre museum conserves approximately 1,752 works awaiting return (spread over the eight departments), including 296 MNR stricto sensu, that is to say paintings.

The legal obligations of museums vis-à-vis the MNRs entrusted to them are:

- make them accessible to the public,

- mention on their cartel their origin and their inventory number with the specific prefix MNR / OAR / RFR ...,

- do not lend them abroad.

In the overall system for identifying and restoring looted works, everyone has their role to play. The mission of the conservation departments of the Louvre is to study the MNRs and to provide a range of elements allowing the identification of the work and the artist. The Louvre transmits these data to the Ministry of Culture, which is responsible for investigating restitution files in connection with the Commission for Compensation for Victims of Spoliation (the CIVS), which reports to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Thanks to its scientific research, the Louvre has greatly contributed to the creation of a directory of MNRs, put online since 1997, with an illustrated notice for each work. In 2004, a paper catalog of some 1,000 ancient MNR paintings was published.

From 2008, the website was completely overhauled and enriched with a documentary environment. It was renamed the "Rose-Valland site" in order to pay tribute to this conservation officer assigned, during the Occupation, to the Jeu de Paume gallery, whose notes were used in numerous restitutions after the war.

In 2013, Elisabeth Foucart-Walter, chief curator at the Department of Paintings at the Louvre Museum, participated in the working group on the provenances of works recovered after the Second World War, which submitted its report to the Minister of Culture and Communication in November 2014. This working group made it possible in particular to identify the owners at the time of their theft of 27 MNR works.

- There is a working group set up by the Ministry of Culture, what are its missions? Can you describe one specifically? "

Absolutely, the Mission for the search and restitution of cultural property looted between 1933 and 1945 was set up within the General Secretariat of the Ministry of Culture. We are actively collaborating with her, but the Louvre cannot respond on her behalf, so it would be best to contact her.

Le copyright : © Musée du Louvre / Antoine Mongodin

-Two rooms in the Louvre in Paris are dedicated to works recovered in Germany. Tell us about the birth of these rooms. How do you select the tables? Are they changing? Are they sometimes loaned out for exhibitions?

The creation of these two permanent cabinets at the Louvre is a great first in the history of MNRs. Indeed, a significant part of these works has already been the subject, in the past, of temporary exhibitions at the Louvre as well as in several museums in France, but by devoting to them in December 2017 a specific and permanent space, the Department of Paintings. has taken, I believe, an additional step to make the public aware of the fate of these works, which are intended to be restored. 31 paintings are thus presented in this space, while 76 others are exhibited in the rest of the museum's painting trail, with a specific label.

We wanted to make it a separate place, evoking the universe of private collection, to recall the original context in which these paintings, from all schools, from all periods, of varying quality, were looted. This is to remember that, while these works are entrusted to the care of national museums, they do not belong to them. Our objective is to restore the despoiled families to their beneficiaries, which has experienced significant intensification over the past twenty years, but still insufficient.

We opted, in these two cabinets located on the second floor of the Richelieu wing, located in the immediate vicinity of the Medici Gallery, for a scenography with a more intimate atmosphere, also conducive to the exercise of memory. Our idea would be to open one in each of the museum's wings.

Indeed, this space, we also designed it as a place of memory on the spoliations. Since its creation, it has inspired other places in the Louvre, notably in the Graphic Arts mediation room or in the Sculptures department.

As already mentioned, MNR works can be loaned for exhibitions but only on national territory. They cannot leave France. Similarly, museums cannot restore MNR works so as not to alter their appearance.

-Have these tableaux been the subject of recovery requests? Who do they belong to?

No, and that is one of the reasons that led us to present them: to make them better known, also to make the Rose Valland base better known and to encourage potential beneficiaries to make themselves known.

If so many works have not yet regained their rightful owners, their identification process is very complex. We often do not know for sure either the attribution (author, title) of these works during World War II, or how they entered Germany. At the same time, many of the families concerned, decimated during the war and the Shoah, have lost their archives or even the precise memory of the heritage of their ancestors ... It is therefore extremely difficult to reconstruct these mutilated memories, even though this is the very condition for return the works. It is important to consider that henceforth, we must now act in a more "proactive" manner in the search for rights holders.

-At the Louvre, each time do you indicate the history of the looted work if there has been a request for recovery?

Any MNR work is the subject of a cartel mentioning its specific status, specifying: "Work recovered at the end of the Second World War, deposited by the office of private property; awaiting its return to its legitimate owners "and refers to the Rose-Valland MNR (National Museums of Recovery) site in order to be able to find the history of the work there - the cartel is too brief to present this information. Wifi, however, makes it possible to consult the Rose Valland database and we are currently working on a "flash code" on the cartels which would allow the visitor to obtain the complete history of the work.

-Are there any paintings in the Louvre that have already been the subject of such a request? Yes, and around fifty paintings have been restored since the 1950s. Restitution has accelerated over the past ten years, even if they remain insufficient.

Many thanks!

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