The Musée d'Orsay in Paris has been ordered by a French administrative court to restitute four major works by Renoir, Cézanne, and Gauguin, which were stolen during World War II.
A Paris Administrative Court ruling has ordered the French state to return four works, kept at the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, to the heirs of the great art dealer Ambroise Vollard. The facts for which restitution was sought date from shortly after Vollard’s death in 1939: the works of art in his estate were in fact divided between his brothers (including the executor of his will, Lucien Vollard) and Mr. and Mrs. de Galéa and their son Robert, longtime friends of the art dealer. Etienne Bignou was the appraiser appointed by the Galéas, Martin Fabiani that of Lucien Vollard.
However, Martin Fabiani and Etienne Bignou, with the complicity of Lucien Vollard, allegedly took seven works from Vollard’s estate with the aim of selling them during the German occupation of France at the time of World War II, and they were in fact found in Germany at the end of the conflict: Roses in a Vase by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Head of an Old Man by Paul Cézanne, The Great Bathers by Renoir, Undergrowth by Cézanne, The Judgment of Paris by Renoir, Marina in Guernsey by Renoir, and Still Life with Mandolin by Paul Gauguin. The works were, moreover, listed in the inventory of assets that left France during World War II and were found outside the country’s borders, which was established to return any works that left illegally to their rightful owners. The heirs of Ambroise Vollard’s estate asked the Directorate of the Museums of France and the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the return of these seven works to their rightful owners and their heirs, claiming that they were the owners of these seven works.
However, in an order dated January 4, 2018, whose annulment the plaintiffs sought, the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs refused to return four of the seven works to them, and reserved the right to rule on the return of the other three works of art. After recalling a July 30, 2014 Council of State ruling that the return of works listed in the inventory of works that left France during World War II may take place either when the rightful owners have been victims of spoliation or are presumed to have been victims of spoliation, or when no spoliation has occurred, they were and remain their rightful owners, the Paris Administrative Court, in a preliminary ruling dated Dec. 4, 2019, held that the question of the ownership of the seven disputed works, on which the resolution of the dispute depended, presented a serious difficulty whose jurisdiction lay with the ordinary courts. Therefore, the judgment was suspended until the ruling of the ordinary courts.
Later, in a ruling on May 11, 2022, the Paris court, confirmed by a ruling of the Court of Cassation on November 23, 2022, ruled that Paul Gauguin’s Still Life with Mandolin, Marina in Guernsey and The Judgment of Paris by Pierre-Auguste Renoir as well as Paul Cézanne’s Undergrowth belonged to Ambroise Vollard’s collection at the time of his death. Finally, in a ruling dated February 10, 2023, the administrative court annulled the decision by which the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs refused to return the works to the plaintiffs. Which must now therefore return to Vollard’s heirs.
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