France’s Supreme Court Rejects Austrian Restitution Claim

The drawings were acquired by a Nazi sympathizer during the occupation.


France's Conseil d'Etat, Paris Photo: Marie-Lan Ngyen Courtesy: WikiCommons

France’s Conseil d’Etat, Paris
Photo: Marie-Lan Ngyen via Wikimedia Commons

It’s the end of a case that lasted more than a decade. France’s supreme court, the Council of State, has ruled that the foreign affair ministry was right to have turned down a restitution claim for three artworks seized by the American army in Austria at the end of World War Two.

They hadn’t been there long. In 1940, a German-American dealer had sold the three drawings by Adriaen Van Ostade, Francisco Goya, and Honoré Daumier to an Austrian dealer in charge of building a permanent collection for a regional museum in Salzburg. The pieces then entered the possession of an Austrian private collector. Suspected of being Nazi loot, they were retrieved by the Allied Forces and repatriated to France.

Once in the country, the drawings were added to the Musées Nationaux Récupération catalogue, which lists all artworks suspected of having been looted from French owners by the Nazis. These works have a particular status: they do not belong to the state, which simply acts as their guardian with a view of returning them to their rightful owners. The pieces must be accessible to the public, but cannot leave the country and thus cannot be lent for exhibitions abroad.

In the late 1990s, two heirs of the Austrian collector started a procedure to recover the works. When the request was turned down by the administrative tribunal, they appealed, twice, and the case ended up with the Council of State, which gave a final verdict.

Several key elements were put led to the decision. While the original owner of these drawings is unknown, the sale to the German-American dealer took place during the France’s occupation, and the man was known for his close ties to the Nazi elite. The pieces were then purchased at greatly inflated prices at the request and with funds from the Nazi management in Austria. In view of these elements, the Council of State ruled that the rejection of the restitution claim was valid.

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