The Musée d’Orsay Needs to Restitute Paintings Looted During WWII

The Musée d’Orsay Needs to Restitute Four Paintings Looted During World War II: Cézanne, Renoir, and Gauguin's.

Feb 18, 2023By Angela Davic, News, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and Analysis
The Musée d'Orsay
The Musée d’Orsay


The Musée d’Orsay is a French national museum. A week ago, a French court came to the conclusion that those four masterpieces came into the Nazis possession illegally. Overall, somebody stole the pieces after the death of their rightful owner, Ambroise Vollard. He was an art dealer at that time. Now, the Musée d’Orsay needs to destitute the paintings to his heirs.


The Musée d’Orsay and Vollard’s Heirs: A Decade Long Battle

The Musée d’Orsay
The main Hall of the Orsay Museum. Photo: Eduardo Fuster/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.


Those four masterpieces include: two paintings by Renoir: an 1883 seascape of Guernsey and a sanguine study, the Still Life with mandolin painting by Gauguin, and also the watercolour painting Undergrowth by Cézanne. While the French administrative court made this decision on February 10, it was expected since different courts’ rulings, from May 2022.


Last year, a different court made a ruling, stating Vollard possessed those paintings before he died. In November 2022, France’s Supreme Court affirmed the court’s decision. And now, in 2023, another court ordered the restitution. The French government, which controls the Musée d’Orsay, announced it will not file an appeal.


Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Marine Guernesey (1883).


But, this legal dispute between Vollard‘s successors and the government and museum is not a brand-new development. It started ten years ago, in 2013. At that time, successors filed a lawsuit to get back seven paintings. This includes four masterpieces listed above. The authorities did not accept this conditions. They claimed there were not enough evidence which would support the claims of them being stolen.

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Who Was Ambroise Vollard?

Ambroise Vollard
Photo by Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) via wikipedia


Another problem is that Vollard was not Jewish. Hence, his assets were not technically seized under the racial laws imposed by invading Nazi forces. Vollard work with some of the greatest minds of the art world. This includes Picasso, Bonnard, Renoir and Cézanne. He also was an influential dealer of post-impressionist and modern art.


At the age of 73, he passed away in a car accident in 1939. Because of his professional orientation, he had more than 6,000 artworks. After he died, his brothers and sisters became their rightful owners. His brother Lucien Vollard became his executor. But, he helped in stealing a part of Vollard’s collection. In this matter he worked with art dealers Étienne Bignou and Martin Fabiani.


Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin Still Life with Mandolin 1885 via wikipedia


They sold the pieces of art to German galleries, dealers, or Nazi officials. Eventhough Vollard was not Jewish, the court said any art found in Germany after the war must find a way to its previous owner. It doesn’t matter if somebody stole it or not. Two more Renoir paintings belong to Vollard, and his heirs continue to demand their return. Also, Cézanne’s, as supposedly being part of his collection.

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By Angela DavicNews, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and AnalysisAngela is a journalism student at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade and received a scholarship for continued education in Prague. She completed her internship at the daily newspaper DANAS and worked as an executive editor at Talas.