The Musée d’Orsay in Paris has been ordered by a French administrative court to restitute four major works by Renoir, Cézanne, and Gauguin, which were stolen during World War II, to the heirs of the prominent 20th century French art dealer Ambroise Vollard, the Art Newspaper reported Thursday.
The group includes Renoir’s 1883 seascape Marine Guernesey, and a study, completed around 1908, for the Judgement of Paris (in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art), as well as Gauguin’s Still life with mandolin (1885) and a watercolor titled Undergrowth (1890-1892) by Cézanne.
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The ruling marks a victory ten years in the making for Vollard’s heirs. In 2013, they requested the restitution of seven works allegedly stolen by experts from the dealer’s estate following his sudden death in 1939 at 73. The experts, charged with assessing the 6,000 works of Post-Impressionist and Modern art accrued over Vollard’s storied career, instead sold several paintings to German museums, art dealers, or members of the Nazi Party. In May 2022, a court agreed that the four paintings were stolen, a decision upheld last November by a French High Court.
An endorsement by the administrative court was the last step necessary for the paintings’ restitution. According the Art Newspaper, the French State, which oversees the Musée d’Orsay, will not appeal.
All four paintings were listed on database of art recovered in Germany after the Second World War as “to be restituted”.
However, the circumstances of the case complicated any easy path to their restitution. Vollard (b. 1867) was a seismic force in Paris art dealing from the 1890s to the 1930s; he gave Cézanne his first solo exhibition, Picasso his first Paris show, and Matisse his first show anywhere. His prodigious collection, which included some of the most expensive names in art history, was willed to his siblings, inciting fierce family feuding over how to split the holdings.
One of his brothers, Lucien Vollard, who was designated executor, colluded with two experts, Étienne Bignou and Martin Fabiani, to steal part of the inheritance. Their illicit actions were denounced following the Second World War, but following a request by Vollard’s heirs, the French state determined the details of their dealings weren’t clear enough to constitute restitution. Additionally, Vollard was not Jewish, and his artwork was not seized under the race laws issued by the Nazis. However, a magistrate eventual ruled that any property lost during the war must be returned to its original owner, whether looted by the Nazis or not.
In the decades since his death, the Vollard collection has been dispersed to museums and private collections worldwide, broadeninf the legal battle waged by his heirs over their return. In 2012, they sued the Serbian government over 429 pieces that are housed at the National Museum in Belgrade, in a case that is still ongoing.