Soldats allemands posant devant un tableau spolié en 1944

Artwork looted in World War II and its return Guide to archival research

Looted and returned artwork : an historical overview

During World War II, France was the scene of looting organised by the German occupying forces and the Vichy government, who seized the cultural property (not only artworks but also libraries and manuscripts, pianos, copyright, etc.) owned by Jews.
Looting began in summer 1940, under the auspices of the German Embassy in Paris. From September 1940, it was mainly orchestrated by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR - Reichsleiter Rosenberg Task Force), a unit tasked with confiscating cultural property belonging to Jews and Freemasons in territories occupied by the Third Reich. In addition, from 1942, the Möbel-Aktion (Furniture Action) operation masterminded by the Dienststelle Westen (Western Office) set about plundering the apartments abandoned by those who had been interned or arrested, or had fled, while the job of clearing out their bank safe deposit boxes fell to the Devisenschutzkommando (Foreign Exchange Protection Commando). It is estimated that the ERR appropriated some 20,000 works of art from over 200 Jewish individuals or families, art collectors and dealers.

The Vichy government was also party to this looting, through its “Aryanisation” policy, the aim of which was to exclude Jews from all spheres of social and economic life. The Commissariat-General for Jewish Affairs (CGQJ – Commissariat général aux questions juives) established by law on 29 March 1941 appointed provisional administrators to manage and sell Jewish-owned property. Art and antiques dealers and private collectors all naturally fell victim to this “Aryanisation” policy.

Purpose of the guide

In 2013, the Ministry for Culture and Communication embarked on a new series of proactive measures geared towards returning MNRs to their rightful owners, including the creation of a “Working group on the provenance of artworks recovered after World War II”. In a report delivered to the Ministry on 27 November 2014, the group recommended that a guide to archival research into looted art and its return to its rightful owners should be compiled, one of the purposes of which would be to update the document published in 2000 under the leadership of Caroline Piketty as part of the Mattéoli Mission. Following discussions between the French National Archives, the Archive department at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the members of the working group, it was decided to carry out investigations to identify and catalogue the various archives in France with the potential to offer information about looted and returned cultural property.

See the Mission de recherche et de restitution des biens culturels spoliés entre 1933 et 1945 on the website of the french Ministry for Culture 



National Archives

Diplomatic archives

French Artwork Recovery services (209SUP) 
Office for Personal Property and Interests. Service for German Spoliation in France (13BIP)
Office for Personal Property and Interests. Restitution (22BIP) 

National Institute for Art History

Defence Historical Service

War Ministry. Cultural Section of the General Directorate for Studies and Research 

Paris Police Prefecture

Paris Police Prefecture. Artworks seized by the German authorities in June and July 1940 (BA 2436)
General Intelligence Services. Individual record for Germain Ducher (77 W 5371) 
Paris Police Prefecture. Legal purge records (KB 69)

Shoah Memorial

Commissariat-General for Jewish Affairs 
German embassy in Paris
Record of Otto Abetz
German Military Command in France
International Military Tribunal. Nuremberg trial

Museum of the Château and National Estate of Compiègne

Exhibition at Compiègne of works recovered by the Artworks recovery services


Selected bibliography and resources on line

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