Germans demand return of `stolen' art

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The Independent Online
Germany's Wuppertal museum is claiming the French stole 16 works of art at the end of the war - including a Renoir. The French insist they were bought fairly by the Vichy regime. John Lichfield reports on a startling reversal of roles.

A German museum is demanding the return of 16 works of art which it claims were seized by French troops at the end of the Second World War.

The formal request, by the Von de Heydt Museum in Wuppertal, near Bonn, has been frostily rejected by the French authorities. "It is like bumping into granite," says the museum director, Sabine Fehlemann.

Paris does not deny that the works, including a sketch by Auguste Renoir and two paintings by Eugene Delacroix, were "repatriated" from the Wuppertal museum in 1945. It does not deny that the paintings were purchased, openly and legally, by the German museum in the Paris art market during the war.

But the French government points out that the franc had been steeply devalued from 1940, on Nazi orders, and Vichy France had been forced to pay large sums in "reparations" to Hitler's Germany. As a result, German buyers were flush with francs and able to buy French art-works at absurdly low "real" prices. By an edict of the provisional de Gaulle government in London in 1943, ratified by the French parliament after the war, all purchases made under the German occupation were declared null and void.

Ms Fehlemann, whose demand has been reported enthusiastically in the German press, refuses to accept this logic. "Exchange rates go up, exchange rates go down," she told the French newspaper, Liberation. "Since Jews are having their property returned to them, why can't we have ours?"

Comments of this kind have produced suggestions that the museum director is anti-Semitic or acting from some sort of far-right or neo-Nazi political motives.

Ms Fehlemann testily rejects such accusations. She points out that she is, herself, a quarter Jewish and that Germany also suffered artistic devastation in the Nazi period.

Her own museum, she says, had 180 works of art confiscated by the Nazis as "degenerate" in 1937-8. It then lost another 80 works, including 36 paintings, after the Allies invaded Germany in 1945. Some of these works, she insists, were purchased long before the war. "We were pillaged twice, first by the Nazis and then by the Allies."

Other German musems and art collections have declined to follow Ms Fehlemann's lead so far. The German government says it supports her initiative but is unwilling to press the case directly with the French authorities. Francoise Cachin, director of French national museums, commented: "Quite honestly, I can't see how it would be in Bonn's interest to associate itself with the actions of the Nazis."