After World War II, works of art suspected of having been stolen by the Nazis were listed on a special registry called the Musées Nationaux Récupération (MNR registry), and stored in French museums until they could be returned to their rightful owners. On July 30, 2014, the Conseil d’Etat, the French Supreme Administrative Court, clarified the legal framework that applies to the restitution of artwork listed on the MNR registry.
In the case at hand, three drawings by Goya, Daumier and Van Ostade had been sold in Paris in 1940 and 1941 by a German gallery owner to an Austrian art dealer, who was entrusted with the creation of a regional museum in Salzburg. The drawings ended up in the possession of an Austrian citizen. At the end World War II, the American army seized the artworks and handed them over to the French authorities, which returned them to France and listed them on the MNR registry.
At the end of the 1990s, the heirs of the last Austrian owner of the drawings asked the French Minister of Foreign Affairs to return the drawings seized in 1945. The request was denied and the heirs challenged the denial before the administrative court and the administrative court of appeal, with no success. The issue was then referred to the Conseil d’Etat.
Conseil d’Etat Ruling
The Conseil d’Etat explained that the seizure of artworks by French authorities (in this case via the American army) at the end of World War II was an act of war, and was therefore protected by sovereign immunity. However, the refusal by the French authorities to return the drawings to the Austrian heirs could be challenged in court.
The Conseil d’Etat clarified that the French State was not the owner of the artworks listed on the MNR registry but merely their guardian, and had to return them to their rightful owners upon request. This obligation is not subject to a statute of limitations.
The restitution of these artworks is only mandatory when it has been proven that the works had been stolen or where circumstantial evidence suggested that the works had been stolen. Such circumstantial evidence may include the date of the transaction (after 16 June 1940), the parties to the transaction, and the conditions and purposes of the transaction.
The Conseil d’Etat considered, based on circumstantial evidence, that the original owner of the drawings had been forced to sell them. This evidence included the facts that the German gallery owner and the Austrian art dealer involved in the sales in 1940 and 1941 were known to have had privileged relationships with the Nazi authorities in Paris, and that the Austrian art dealer had bought the drawings with Nazi funds for three to four times the price originally paid by the German gallery owner in acquiring the works. The Conseil d’Etat therefore refused to return the drawings to the Austrian heirs on the basis that they were not their rightful owners. The rightful owner remained unknown.
The Conseil d’Etat finally ruled that the recovery and preservation of the art seized by the French State after World War II did not violate the right to property recognized in the Protocol 1, Article 1 of the European Convention of Human Rights. It considered that it was necessary to retain stolen pieces of art until such time as they could be returned to their rightful owners, whose own property rights had been violated.
Source: Conseil d’Etat, July 30, 2014, Mrs. D. and Mrs. B., no. 349789.
Camille Spegt, trainee in McDermott's Paris office, also contributed to this article.