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France passes law allowing museums to return Nazi-looted art

30 June 2023

On Thursday (29 June), the French National Assembly voted unanimously to adopt a new law designed to streamline the restitution of Nazi-looted objects held by public collections. It allows institutions to return items to the heirs of Jewish owners without the need for individual laws to be created for each case, as was previously the situation. The legislation covers cultural property proven to have been stolen between 30 January 1933 and 8 May 1945. According to the Ministry of Culture, some 100,000 works were seized in France during the Second World War. The policy is based on recommendations in a report by Jean-Luc Martinez, a former director of the Louvre and commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron.

The French artist Claude Lévêque has been charged with rape and sexual assault of minors. The 70-year-old artist, who represented France at the 2009 Venice Biennale, was left free under judicial supervision but is forbidden from leaving the country. Previous allegations against Lévêque made by the sculptor and art teacher Laurent Foulon were made public in 2021. Foulon claimed that Lévêque had sexually assaulted and raped him in the 1980s, while he was between the ages of 10 and 17. Lévêque denied the claims and the case was dismissed under the statute of limitations. Two brothers subsequently testified that they had also been abused by Lévêque during the late 1990s, while they were both under the age of 17. Kamel Menour gallery suspended its representation of the artist when the first accusations surfaced.

The Hermitage Amsterdam announced on Monday (26 June) that it will be renamed H’ART Museum from September this year. The change follows the museum’s severing of ties with the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. In the future, the museum will work in partnership with the British Museum, the Centre Pompidou and the Smithsonian American Art Museum – with access to more than 160 million objects in total. The H’Art Museum is planning a major Kandinsky exhibition with the Centre Pompidou in mid 2024.

Christie’s Modern and contemporary evening sale in London on Wednesday (28 June) fetched £51.7m – down 66 per cent from last year’s equivalent auction and short of its presale estimate of £55.2m–£80.8m. The sale consisted of 66 lots, including a portrait of Picasso by Jean-Michel Basquiat from 1984 and a landscape by Paul Signac, Calanque des Canoubiers (Pointe de Bamer), Saint-Tropez (1896). The Basquiat sold for £5.4m, while the Signac went for £6.7m. At Sotheby’s, Lady With a Fan (1918) by Gustav Klimt fetched £85.3m, beating the record for the highest public sale of an artwork in Europe. This was previously held by Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man I (1961), which sold for £65m in 2010, also at Sotheby’s in London.

Jonathan Fine, currently director of the Weltmuseum in Vienna, has been selected to succeed Sabine Haag as general director of the city’s Kunsthistorisches Museumsverband, overseeing three major major museums in the city. The American art historian will be responsible for the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Weltmuseum and the Austrian Theatre Museum from 1 January 2025. Before joining the Weltmuseum, Fine served as head of collections at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. Last week a commission led by Fine recommended the setting up of a restitutions committee to handle claims over objects acquired in a colonial contest. The Austrian culture minister Andrea Mayer said: ‘Jonathan Fine has convinced me that he doesn’t just understand the burning issues museums face today, but also wants to confront them.’ In London, Sarah Victoria Turner has been appointed director of the Paul Mellon Centre. Turner has been acting director since Mark Hallett stepped down from the role in March 2023. She will be the centre’s first woman director since it was founded in 1970.