Rightfully Returned: Paris Court Orders the Restitution of Four Stolen World War II Masterpieces - Arts & Culture

Four paintings from Renoir, Cézanne, and Gauguin are to be surrendered to the heirs of prominent French art dealer, Ambroise Vollard.

A report from The Art Newspaper last week announced that the Paris administrative court had ordered the restitution of four artworks—made by renowned French artists Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin—which were stolen and sold to Nazis during the second world war. The works—placed under the care of the Musée D’Orsay—are to be returned to the descendants of their one-time owner, Ambroise Vollard. 

The pieces in question are Renoir’s Marine,Guernsey (1883) and The Judgement of Paris (1908), Cézanne’s Undergrowth (1890-1892), and Gauguin’s Still Life with a Mandolin (1885). 

Marine, Guernsey by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Marine, Guernsey by Pierre-Auguste Renoir/Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
The Judgement of Paris by Pierre Auguste Renoir
The Judgement of Paris by Pierre-Auguste Renoir/Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Undergrowth by Paul Cezanne
Undergrowth by Paul Cézanne/Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Still Life with a Mandolin by Paul Gauguin
Still Life with a Mandolin by Paul Gauguin. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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Vollard’s Legacy

Vollard was once a formidable force in France’s art dealing world from the 1890s to 1930s, until his untimely death in 1939. At the age of 73, the art dealer had been involved in a fatal road accident, where his head hit a bronze piece stored within his car

He left behind an expansive art collection composed of roughly 6,000 works—many of which were created by some of the world’s most notable artists. This comes as no surprise, considering that Vollard had given Pablo Picasso his first Paris show, Paul Cézanne his first solo exhibition, and Henri Matisse his very first show in his career. 

Ambroise Vollard standing in front of Picasso Evocacion
Ambroise Vollard standing in front of Picasso’s Evocación/Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A Complicated History

Some people may wonder how the prized pieces of an influential figure like Vollard were so easily lost and sold to the Nazis. However, this was not a rare occurrence in Europe, so much so that it earned a name for itself: Nazi Plunder

One of Vollard’s brothers, Lucien Vollard, was assigned as his executor upon his passing. Unfortunately, Lucien was complicit in the theft of numerous artworks from his brother’s collection. The other perpetrators in this illicit operation were two French art experts—Étienne Bignou and Martin Fabiani—who were assigned to assess Vollard’s works under Lucien’s supervision. 

As it happens, Bignou and Fabiani had close ties with members of the Nazi party. As such, some of Vollard’s artworks were sold to Nazis, while others were given to German dealers and museums. 

The Decade-Long Legal Battle

The recent ruling of the Paris Court marks the end of a 10-year legal battle between the heirs of Vollard and the French government. 

In 2013, the art dealer’s descendants requested to have seven artworks returned—including the four aforementioned Renoir, Cézanne, and Gauguin pieces. While the actions of the perpetrators were denounced after WWII, the French government continued to decline the heirs’ request. Their reasoning was that the works weren’t stolen under racial laws of occupying Nazi forces, since Vollard wasn’t Jewish. 

However, The Art Newspaper article shares that “On a databank of some 2,000 works recovered in Germany after the war which have failed to be returned to their legitimate owners, the Culture Ministry wrote ‘to be restituted’ on each of the four files.” Adding to that, French magistrates later stated that any work “has to be restituted to its legitimate owner or beneficiary, even if it had not been looted.” 

Finally, progress was starting to be made. In May 2022, a court announced that the works were the property of Vollard at the time of his death and were indeed stolen. The judgment was upheld by the High Court last November, and administrative jurisdiction has formally endorsed the restitution—which is the final step in the process. The French state, which supervises the Musée D’Orsay, has announced that it will not appeal. 

Although two of Vollard’s heirs have passed away during this lengthy legal battle—as shared by one of their attorneys, François Honnorat—other descendants are still pursuing the restitution of three other paintings. Two are works of Renoir, while the third one is a portrait by Cézanne. 

Banner Photo by Pierre-Auguste Renoir via Wikimedia Commons.

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