Museums Thefts France

France regains painting lost during the First World War

Work returned by Germany goes on show as search for missing art continues

Back in Douai: Après la lecture, 1865, by Alix Marie de La Pérelle-Poisson (before restoration). Photo: ©Douai, musee de la Chartreuse

While the art hoarded by Cornelius Gurlitt continues to raise questions about what should be done with Nazi-looted pictures, on 12 April, the German government restituted just one of many works stolen from northern French museums during the First World War—a period whose art losses remain little known. The return of the painting, Après la lecture (after reading), 1865, by Alix Marie de La Pérelle-Poisson marks both centenary of the Great War and the start of a new effort by French museums to raise awareness of the cultural losses.

The painting was stolen from the musée de la Chartreuse in Douai in September 1918, during an emergency evacuation by the German army of its collections to Valenciennes. Deemed “disappeared”, the work was listed among the war damages suffered by the museum in the First World War. Provenance researchers in Germany connected Après la lecture, which was donated by a private collector to the Alte Nationalgalerie in 1959, with the work lost by Douai and the Foundation of Prussian Cultural Heritage, Berlin returned the painting after conservation.

The work is now part of the exhibition “Sauve qui veut: des musées mobil­isés, 1914-18” co-hosted by the Douai museum and the Forum antique de Bavay, spotlighting the efforts of curators and archaeologists to preserve art and heritage along the front lines during the Great War. In northern France especially, museums played an important role as repositories for works evacuated from historic sites and private and public collections.

Further exhibitions are planned in 2014-18 through the association of museum curators of Nord and Pas de Calais, which includes about 50 museums, under the project “War and Peace”. The group also hopes to highlight the art losses that museums have suffered for centuries in the vulnerable northern region of France bordering Flanders and by 2018 aims to create a database of works that disappeared in the Great War on its website, www.musenor.com. Starting in May, the curators also hope to start publicising missing works online, including through Interpol’s database for stolen art, and Joconde, the communications site for the French Ministry of Culture.

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