Seized French Jewish Art Collections

Before 1940, Paris was the center of the international art world. Thousands of artists, Jews and non-Jews alike, converged on France and especially Paris to feed off the myriad intellectual and esthetic trends and movements that one could study, adopt or reject there. Jewish artists in particular had come by the thousands before and after World War I, fleeing Russia, the Balkans, Poland, the newly-formed Yugoslavia and other points north and center.

Many Jewish dealers, collectors, merchants, art historians, and critics expressed a vast range of tastes and preferences ranging from abstract art to 18th century furniture to medieval crucifixes, African masks, Albanian swords and Japanese netsuke.

The German invasion of Western Europe in May and June 1940 produced a massive exodus that included many individuals from the art world—whether consumers, producers or brokers. The imposition of anti-Jewish laws by the German military administration in France and the collaborationist government of Marshal Philippe Pétain put an end to the pre-war culture dominated by the so-called School of Paris whose members included Chaim Soutine, Jules Pascin, Camille Pissarro, Max Ernst and many others. These artists scattered to the four winds, leaving behind their entire corpus of creation, seeking refuge in small towns across central and southern France. Most of their dealers did the same and fled to Spain and Portugal and from there to the United States, often with the courageous assistance of Varian Fry and his Emergency Rescue Committee.

Barely a week had gone by after the occupation of Paris before representatives of civilian and military agencies began to plunder bookstores, galleries, cultural and educational institutions. First, the military administration of MbF began to plunder, followed bythe German embassy in Paris with the help of the so-called Devisenschutzkommando (DSK) and the field police units (GFP). As of mid-September 1940, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) became the official overseer and coordinator of cultural plunder in occupied France. The pre-ERR period of plunder lasted from June 1940 to October 1940.

One of the side effects of plunder is the release in the open of objects and works of art kept locked up in private homes, residences, and estates for decades, if not centuries. From a strictly art-historical standpoint, the record of the plunder of private collections provides a voyeuristic look into cultural production previouslyn removed from the public sphere.