French government ramps up efforts to restitute ‘orphan works’

A 16th century painting, restituted to the heirs of a Jewish couple forced to sell it when they fled Nazi Germany, could pave the way for many other works to return to their rightful owners.

Attributed to Joos van Cleve or his son Cornelis, the portrait was reunited with the family of Hertha and Henry Bromberg in a ceremony in Paris on Monday (28 November). Presenting the work to the Bromberg’s grandchildren, the French culture minister, Audrey Azoulay, acknowledged that its return was “quite belated”. She told those in attendance that the French government had only recently begun to step up its restitution efforts and become more “proactive” in seeking the original owners of works confiscated by the Nazi regime during the Second World War.

Instead of relying on claimants to come forward, the French government is now actively seeking out the descendants of those whose artworks were stolen or forcibly sold. “It was no longer possible to merely wait for the rightful beneficiaries to come ask for the restitution of what is theirs,” Azoulay said. As a result of these efforts, a further 27 objects are set to be returned after French authorities identified their rightful owners.

The Bromberg portrait was purchased by Henry Bromberg’s father Martin in 1912 at auction in Berlin. Characteristic of Flemish portraiture from the 1530s to 1540s, it depicts a man dressed in black with a brown fur coat holding a pair of gloves and the pommel of a sword. Upon fleeing Germany before the outbreak of the war the Brombergs were forced to sell the work in Paris in 1938. It passed through the hands of several art dealers and was eventually sold to the Reich Chancellery for Hitler’s proposed Führermuseum in Linz.

When the war drew to a close, the portrait was one of over 60,000 works of art confiscated from France, which were recovered by Allied troops. Discovered in mines near Salzburg, the painting was returned to France in 1949. One of more than 2,000 works of art deemed to be orphaned, it was stored at the Louvre Museum from 1950-1960 and finally sent to the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Chambéry. Only 107 of these orphan works have been reunited with their owners and the French government has been criticised for dragging its heels.

For the Bromberg family, the restitution process is imbued with more emotional than financial meaning. According to one relative, “the painting doesn’t even have to have any monetary value… It’s about connecting us to our past and the story of our family that was lost”.


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