Furniture proves the next frontier in restitution as Fraenkel objects are tracked down

A claim brought against the Musée Carnavalet in Paris has an effect on US museums


While numerous claims for paintings allegedly stolen by Nazis have been aired in recent years, it has been thought that claims for Nazi-looted decorative arts including furniture might prove more difficult, largely because such objects may not be unique or as easy to identify. Just such a claim is now being articulated in France, where it is tied to specific objects, and in the United States, where it is not.

The French request centres on a collection of 18th century French furniture received by the Carnavalet Museum in Paris in 1966 as a bequest from art dealer Henriette Bouvier, but now claimed to have been “put together” by Bouvier “during the Nazi occupation of France”. The claim is brought by Régine Elkan, a resident of France and the great-granddaughter of the French Jew Adolphe Fraenkel, who owned a large collection of fine French furniture at his death in 1930. After Fraenkel’s wife died in 1936, his estate passed to three heirs, who fled into hiding when the Nazis occupied France, Ms Elkan says. Because some of the heirs were minors, the estate remained open “when the Nazi occupation of France started,” Ms Elkan adds. The furniture collection described in Fraenkel’s 1929 will was never recovered, but a portion of it was identified at the Carnavalet Museum in 1993, after Ms Elkan’s mother “recognised a wing-backed chair in which she had slept as a child,” Ms Elkan says. Bouvier was Adolphe Fraenkel’s sister-in-law.

After writing to the City of Paris, which owns the Carnavalet Museum, contesting the validity of the Bouvier gift, the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs “did not dispute that there was a provenance issue regarding items from the Bouvier Collection”, Ms Elkan says. She has concluded that “the entire Bouvier collection comes from the Adolphe Fraenkel collection which was described in his 1929 will.”

It is the position of the City of Paris that very few objects from the Bouvier bequest came from Adolphe Fraenkel’s estate and that most of the Bouvier bequest was acquired by Bouvier after Fraenkel’s death. The City says that Adolphe Fraenkel’s descendants are barred from recovering any property because the period of 30 years from his death expired in 1960.

By contrast, under ethical guidelines on dealing with art stolen during the Nazi era published by the American Association of Museums in 1999, US museums may “waive certain available defenses” to achieve equitable resolution of Nazi-looting claims. This phrase is viewed as giving museums the approval of the US museum community to disregard statutes of limitations defences in Nazi-looting cases if deemed appropriate.

In May 2002 Ms Elkan filed a formal claim with the French commission charged with compensating Jewish victims for property taken under the Nazi occupation (known as the “Drai Commission” after its head, Pierre Drai). She is seeking full restitution of the Bouvier collection and of other property claimed to be looted from the Fraenkel family during the war, including bank accounts, income from property and business property including a professional trading seat at the Halles de Paris Exchange.

In June 2002, Ms Elkan notified about 30 US museums of the Drai Commission claim and her search for the Fraenkel objects, requesting provenance checks of their collections.

But a number of US museums have responded that after conducting provenance research, they have found no Bouvier objects, according to letters sent to Ms. Elkan. This includes a response from the Metropolitan Museum dated 18 October 2002. The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore wrote to Ms Elkan saying that its records had been searched and the museum found “no evidence” either of any objects that might have come from the Fraenkel Collection or of transactions involving Bouvier. “Furthermore, we know the history of the 18th-century French furniture in our collection and are able to eliminate the Fraenkel Collection as a possible source,” the letter said. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston said that as soon as it had heard of the Carnavalet case earlier in 2002 it had researched its collection for any references to Bouvier and found none, and that after receiving Ms Elkan’s letter, the museum conducted a second review, this time for the name Fraenkel, again finding no results. “What would be most helpful at this juncture is more specific information about the collection—if there was a list of missing objects, for example, or anything else that might help us refine our search,” the museum said.

In the Drai Commission claim, Ms Elkan refers to the “central role played during the Vichy Regime” by the French notaire Jean Bourdel, who, the claim states, “played a central role in the sales of real estate properties owned by Jewish families during the Vichy Regime” and whose role is described in “dozens of documents” from the French National Archives. The same Jean Bourdel acted as notaire to “the whole Fraenkel Elkan family” and was also “advisor to Henriette Bouvier prior to her death”, the Drai claim says. “As the Carnavalet Museum guide itself points out, it was Jean Bourdel who convinced Henriette Bouvier to bequeath this collection to the Carnavalet Museum,” the Drai claim says.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Furniture: the next frontier'