The MNR working group
On 20 December 2012, the CIVS recommended the return of six paintings, thereby decisively contributing, in conjunction with other French government organisations and foreign researchers, to the research and identification of these works. At the ceremony where the works were returned, attended by members of the Commission, the Minister of Culture and Communication announced the establishment of a working group dedicated to the proactive search for the owners of ‘MNR’ works (Musées Nationaux Récupération, (‘National Museums Recovery’) - works that were confiscated by the Nazis and recovered after World War II) that were most likely spoliated. This initiative followed the proposal of Mr Jean-Pierre Bady, a member of the CIVS Deliberative Panel. It also responded to the request to revive the restitution process formulated by Ms Corinne Bouchoux, Senator and rapporteur of the Senate fact-finding mission on spoliated works (a mission carried out on behalf of the Senate’s culture committee to improve the restitution process for works spoliated during the Occupation (January 2013)).
On 15 March 2013, the Minister of Culture and Communication implemented a working group chaired by Ms France Legueltel, judge-rapporteur at the CIVS, and composed of museum curators, members of the Archives department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Archives as well as CIVS staff, a member of the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah (‘Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah’) and a researcher from the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art (INHA, ‘National Institute of Art History’).
The work of this group was directed by a steering committee led by the Director of the Musées de France and Chairman of the CIVS, and including the Managing Director of the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah and the Archives Director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As part of an experimental approach, the working group focused its attentions on a sample of 145 MNR works that the Working Party on the Spoliation of Jews in France (‘Mattéoli Mission’) claimed had almost certainly been spoliated. Research finally made it possible to identify the owners of 27 of these works.
The report was submitted to the Minister of Culture and Communication on 27 November 20141. It recounts the circumstances of the group’s creation, its activities and the methodology adopted, and highlights the progress that resulted from its work, on the provenance of a number of works that constituted a research sample, and on the processing of documentation on spoliated works and archives.
The report calls for sustaining this approach and promoting the awareness of the younger generation of museum professionals, particularly curators, and actors in the art market regarding issues of spoliation and provenance research.
It also advocates improving the reliability of research tools, the refinement of a guide to sources and research in the spoliation and restitution archives and the creation of new IT tools.
Above all, it emphasises the necessity to proceed rapidly with the search for the former owners of spoliated works, when their identity was definitively determined by the working group. With regard to the 27 works of which the owners at the time of their spoliation were identified, their heirs will now be sought by means of a partnership, in the form of a sponsorship, between the Inter-ministerial Department of the Archives of France and the French Genealogists Trade Union Association (USGP).
The findings of the report have already been partially heard: the Minister of Culture and Communication, upon the presentation of the report, said he favoured the prolongation of the group’s work. In addition, fact-finding report No. 2474, presented in December 2014 by Ms Isabelle Attard on behalf of the Committee on Cultural Affairs and Education of the National Assembly1, echoes a number of the group’s proposals. Finally, the inter-ministerial committee of Archives de France (established by Decree No. 2012-479 of 12 April 2012) decided, at its meeting of 29 January 2015, to update the Guide for Archival Research Concerning Spoliation and Compensation.
Organisation and methods of the working group
MNR works can be divided into three categories: those that have been certainly (or almost certainly) spoliated, those for which the provenance could not be established and those that were not spoliated. Based on a methodology proposed by the CIVS, the group worked on a sample of 85 MNR works for which spoliation was definite or strongly suspected and for which a certain amount of information was available.
This work enabled the pooling of expertise and dedicated resources from the various groups, in order to carry out provenance research. Complementary experience and expertise of working group members helped enrich everyone’s viewpoints.
Research operations were sequenced in several stages according to the type of archive:
The results were submitted and discussed at monthly plenary meetings.