On Friday September 23rd 2016, Sylvie Harburger came to the CIVS (Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliation) to present her father Francis Harburger’s paintings and talk about her research, which has revealed two little-known aspects of the history of the spoliation of artworks.
Francis Harburger was an eclectic painter. He produced portraits, still lifes and landscapes, as well as civic paintings on the subjects of peace and Europe and an ecological work. He invented a new pictorial style, hieroglyphs with which he depicted reality in two dimensions.
Francis Harburger was born in Oran in 1905. He began studying art when still very young, enrolling at the Paris School of Decorative Arts in 1921 and the French capital’s School of Fine Arts in 1923. In 1928, he was appointed to a residency at Casa Velázquez in Madrid. Following his return to Paris, he exhibited at galleries and salons, as well as at the 1937 International Exhibition, and was successful in selling his work. In 1933, he married Jeanine Halff, daughter of the Secretary General of the Universal Israelite Alliance. In October 1940, threatened by anti-Semitic laws, he left France with his family and moved to Algiers. During the war, they were despoiled of all their remaining property in Paris, including furniture, his personal collection and works in his studio. It was at that time that spoliations of artworks and the journeys to their final destinations began to take an unprecedented turn.
Upon his return from Algeria, Harburger set about trying to find his paintings, following a trail picked up by his daughter after his death in 1998….
When war was declared, Francis Harburger put a dozen works into storage in the Universal Israelite Alliance’s strong-room. In August 1940, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) emptied the Alliance’s library and, unsurprisingly, the contents of its strong-room as well. Boxes of pictures were mixed up with others filled with books. The boxes, some 500 in all, were sent to the Nazi Staff College in Frankfurt, Germany. Each stage of their journey was identified by Francis Harburger: the Germans sent the boxfuls of books and art objects to Hungen to keep them safe from allied bombing. The Americans found them in 1945 and sent the books to the Offenbach Collecting Point and the pictures to the Wiesbaden Collecting Point. The inventory cards drafted there identified painters’ signatures but not the paintings’ owners. The pictures were regarded as escheated Jewish property and sent to the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRSO), from where they were packed off to the young State of Israel. Three of Harburger’s paintings were restored to him in 1962 and a fourth was returned to Sylvie Harburger in 2008.
Les Lavandières [2905 SH],
Painted during Francis Harburger’s time at Casa Velázquez; artist’s studio until 1942; painting looted during the Occupation. Auctioned at the request of the COSI by Maurice Hordé, Clerk of the Canton of Sceaux, in 1943. Discovered at the Vanves flea market and bought back by Francis Harburger in 1948; artist’s studio; donated by the artist to Castres museum, 1992.
Sources: FH archives; CIVS, dossier 3011, RA 406-P48
In 1948, Harburger chanced upon one of his paintings at a flea market and purchased it. He questioned the stallholder and followed the lead to the seller, a bailiff, who explained that he had auctioned off a number of items on behalf of the Comité Ouvrier de Secours Immédiat (COSI – Workers’ Committee for Immediate Relief), a humanitarian body set up in 1942 that distributed money and furniture coming from Jewish spoliations to disaster victims. Auctions financed their various operating costs.
Sylvie Harburger’s research has revealed a number of unsuspected aspects of the period’s spoliation procedures. The ways in which the Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives (CGQJ – General Commission for Jewish Affairs) set about the “Aryanization” of societies are well-known, as is the looting of apartments by “Möbel-Aktion” (literally “furniture action”) and that suffered by gallery owners and major collectors, but very little is known of the fate of despoiled Jewish artists’ studios. As Didier Schulmann points out in the catalogue raisonné, the documented details Sylvie Harburger has provided alongside notes on her father’s works provide food for thought on the opacity of the art market and management of public collections.
Femme à la mantille (œillet rouge) (Woman in a Mantilla (Red Carnation)) [3408 SH]
Stored in the Universal Israelite Alliance’s strong-room in March 1940; painting looted by the ERR in 1940; found by the Americans at the Hungen warehouse in April 1945; transferred to Wiesbaden in February 1946 under no.3165⁄32; transferred to the JRSO in Nuremberg in July 1951; transferred to the Bezalel National Museum, Jerusalem, in 1952; returned to Francis Harburger in 1962; artist’s studio; Harburger estate.
Sources: Ardelia Hall Collection, NARA M 1947; archives of the Bezalel National Museum, Jerusalem
Get to know Francis Harburger’s work on www.harburger.fr