Nazis weren’t Targeting Art in French MUseums – Just Jewish Owned Art

The Mona Lisa left its home in the Musee du Louvre during World War II and traveled all over France, moving from one hiding place to the next. Museum curators sent each other secret messages over the BBC; “La Jaconde a le sourire” (“The Mona Lisa is smiling”) meant that the painting had arrived at its clandestine destination safe and sound. In the fall of 1939, the painting rode from Chambord to Louvigny in an armored van flanked by two escort vehicles. A museum curator sat next to the Mona Lisa—which had been carefully packed onto an ambulance stretcher—and watched over her, the way a worried father might watch over his ailing daughter. At some point during the ride, the curator started to feel woozy, and he nearly fainted as he climbed out of the van in Louvigny. His prized companion, however, was still smiling her mysterious smile; she had made it through the trip unharmed.


As it turned out, the curators at the Louvre needn’t have been so concerned. When the Nazis occupied France in 1940, they made no effort to steal artworks from the Louvre or any other national museum. Instead, they raided private galleries owned by Jewish collectors and dealers. The Nazis stole thousands of artworks from French Jews, ultimately robbing France of more than a third of its privately owned art. In 1938, Hitler had issued a law stating that every piece of looted art would fall under his direct control. He intended to display works of classical art and antiques in the Führermuseum, a cultural center that he planned to build in his native country, Austria. Hermann Göring, one of Hitler’s senior officers, also envisioned himself as a sophisticated art connoisseur; despite Hitler’s directive, he kept many of the finest looted artworks for his own personal collection. The Nazis had no interest in modern art—“degenerate art,” as they called it—but stole it anyway with the aim of selling it.

Hermann Göring perusing art looted from French Jews in the Jeu de Paume.

Hermann Göring perusing art looted from French Jews in the Jeu de Paume.

Looted art in the Jeu de Paume in Paris, a museum that the Nazis used to store more than 22,000 works of art stolen from French Jews.

Looted art in the Jeu de Paume in Paris, a museum that the Nazis used to store more than 22,000 works of art stolen from French Jews. Rose Valland, the overseer of the Jeu de Paume, kept secret records of the stolen art and risked her life in order to provide information to the underground resistance movement.

If museums like the Louvre had used their armored cars to rescue people instead of paintings, perhaps some lives could have been saved. As it was, museums packed up their artworks and whisked them away to safety, and the Nazis rounded up Jews and deported them to concentration camps. The looting of Jewish art during World War II happens to be a part of my family history. My great-grandfather, Paul Byk, was a Jewish art dealer who lived and worked in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, and he was extremely lucky to have been able to move to the U.S. before the war broke out. His cousin and business partner, Jean Seligmann, unfortunately stayed behind in France. The Nazis eventually captured and killed him, and they stole all of the company’s art.

Earlier this week, I spoke with my grandma and her sister and they each told me the story of their father and his cousin during the war. I have done my best to piece together a true account, but no one’s memory is perfect; these events occurred a long time ago, when my grandma and her sister were still growing up. My great-grandfather, Paul, was born in Germany in 1887. When he was a young man, he moved to Paris to help his cousin, Jean, run the family’s art company, Arnold Seligmann, Rey & Co. The company dealt in art and antiques from the 17th and 18th centuries, including works by Francisco Goya, Frans Hals and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Their collection consisted of paintings, engravings, statuettes, furniture, tapestries and clocks, among other forms of decorative art. My great-grandfather had clients all over Europe and the U.S., and occasionally did business with celebrities like William Randolph Hearst and Greta Garbo. In the 1920s and ’30s, he traveled back and forth between New York and Paris, where he worked out of their office on Place Vendôme.

Place Vendome. The Seligmann office was located in building number 23 (the blue doors next to Cartier).

The Seligmann office was located at 23 Place Vendôme (the building with the blue doors, next to Cartier). These days, the building is occupied by Louis Vuitton.

Jean, his wife, and my great-grandmother at Monte Carlo. Jean is on the right, wearing glasses, and his wife is the one in the glamorous white fur coat. My great-grandmother is sitting next to Jean, on the right.

Jean, his wife, and my great-grandmother. Jean is on the right, wearing glasses, and his wife is on the left in the glamorous fur coat. My great-grandmother is sitting in the back, next to Jean.

In 1939, right before the war broke out, my great-grandfather decided to leave Paris for good. Paul and his family traveled to New York on the SS Champlain, a ship that was torpedoed by the Germans later on in the war. Paul’s cousin, Jean, also fled Paris; my great-aunt believes he took refuge in a safer part of France. Jean’s wife, however, stayed in Paris with their children; she wasn’t Jewish, so they weren’t in danger. According to my great-aunt, Jean couldn’t bear to be apart from his wife, so he snuck back into Paris before the war was over. He might have survived if the family’s maid hadn’t given him away to the authorities; in 1941, the Nazis captured him and brought him to the Prison du Cherche-Midi, a French military prison in Paris that the Nazis used to house and execute political prisoners during the war. They tortured Jean at Cherche-Midi until, eventually, they shot him.

The Nazis also stole much of the art in the company’s collection. They stored it—carefully sorted and labeled—in a mine in Germany. My great-grandfather mentioned the theft in a letter to his client, William Randolph Hearst: “Our [Paris] place….has been Aryanized and a lot of our valuable antiques have been taken over by the Germans….Our London place has been bombed.”

On the day of his execution, at 3 a.m., Jean wrote a letter to my great-grandfather on a scrap of brown paper. No one knows for certain how the note reached Paul, but my great-aunt suspects that Jean bribed one of the prison guards to send it. My great-aunt still has the note. The message, written in pencil, has faded over time, but the last line is clear: “Adieu, I embrace you for the last time.”

The original note, framed beneath a photo of Jean.

The original note, framed beneath a photo of Jean.

Jean's note, up close.

Jean’s note, up close.

After the war, the Allies set out to recover the artwork looted by the Nazis. The “Monument Men,” civilians and service members belonging to the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives initiative (MFAA), found art hidden in caves, castles and salt mines all over Germany, Austria and Italy. Only a fraction of the looted art was reclaimed, however, as many of the rightful owners had been killed in the Holocaust; today, thousands of unclaimed works still belong to museums all over the world. Some people have argued that museum curators haven’t made enough of an effort to identify stolen works in their collection and return them to the living relatives of their rightful owners. In 1998, roughly 100 French museums responded to this criticism by hosting a series of exhibitions in which they displayed their Nazi-looted works; Philippe Douste-Blazy, the Minister of Culture at the time, explained that he wanted “to show that the reality is much more complex than rumors that say French museums have hidden ‘treasures’ stolen from Jewish families by the Nazis.”

Eisenhower inspecting Nazi-looted art found in a salt mine in Germany. April, 1945.

Eisenhower inspecting Nazi-looted art found in a salt mine in Germany. .

The Musée du Louvre, alone, houses more than a thousand Nazi-looted works of art. The only indicator of these paintings’ murky provenance is the acronym typed on the accompanying wall labels: MNR, for Musées Nationaux Récupération (National Museums Recovery). Alone, the letters are so vague and obscure that one might even wonder whether the museum still feels uncomfortable drawing attention to the issue. No matter what the Louvre’s motives are, it is clear that the museum has missed an opportunity to honor the memories of the works’ original owners.


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8 thoughts on “Nazis weren’t Targeting Art in French MUseums – Just Jewish Owned Art

  1. Interesting article about the looted art, Elisabeth !
    My grandparents ( Lucien Raphael ) and parents were among the people you talk about : the germans took their home in Paris ( 23 square de l’Avenue Foch, 80 Avenue Foch ) and stole everything ( my father re-purchased his bust by Charles Despiau, sold Gallery Petrides under the name ” buste du comte de Paris ” Petrides was collaborating with the germans. ). We recuperated the house after the war but the walls, the floors, the vitrines were empty. For David David Weill and his wife Flora ( my grand father’sister ) the collection has been recuperated, thank to a courageous lady who noted the number of the train and wagon.
    We recupareted, a few years ago, a few works on paper, it was described in the English Times.
    Other thing : I have been told that my godmother, who was protestant, born Scherrer Kestner and her husband Pol Neveux were among those who hide Mona Lisa during the war.

    1. Celine, It is my honor for you to have this forum to be able to share your personal experience. While this website originally started as only being dedicated to the Duerers who were crypto Jews suffering the same extraordinary persecution, called then the Inquisition, I purposefully decided to start including Nazi art looted stories just because the similarities are so great.

      Much admiration for you and your family in pressing on to recuperate and for all the brave things your family did and tragedies your family overcame.

      All the best,


  2. A few weeks ago I retired after 34 years of my post of of curator of the Jewish Museum of Belgium.
    Since 1995 I was involved in the research of looting art in Belgium and in Europe. As such I was nominated as expert for All you have written I have rea
    All you have

    As expert by the Belgium government for different international conferences on this particular subject.
    In this capacity I must tell you that I do not agree with you on this subject of discussion . Of course the nazis looted Jewish art and Jews but not only. They looted also free masons, communists, and other democrats but also not degenerate art like the mystic lamb by the Van Eyck brothers from the Gent cathedral or a sculpture by Michel Angelo if I only speak about the most important Belgium works of art.
    Till today all kind of works in museums all over the world,including the USA and Israel, have to make more efforts on provenance research to clean their collection of looted pieces. Don t you think so?

    1. I am honored also that you have commented here. The purpose of the article was to indicate that when the Nazis were looting museums, they were specifically targeting Jewish art and left some of the other art.

      In no ways shape or form should this article be construed to minimize the horrific continent wide thefts of art everywhere from every country. I find no words to aptly describe Nazis since their butchery and subhumanity is very well documented.

      And yes, I am in total agreement with you in regards provenance research. Many of these butchers were allowed to return to their museum jobs after the war as I believe I’ve already reported in almost all countries. The collaboration that occurred in the aftermath of the war allowed the hiding of still looted art to remain in museums never bothering with provenances. Which is why Germany in particular is having a real problem today in their museums after the Gurlitt discovery trying to come up with ways of still keeping suspect art as part of their collections. One German museum just novelly closed it’s door with some media pr to avoid scrutiny.

      The auction houses also have blood on their hands in regards to provenance research but greed always out trumps morality.

      Thank you again for your comment.



  3. Very great post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I’ve really loved surfing around your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing on your feed and I hope you write again soon!

  4. Thank you for the article Elizabeth, it was very moving to read. I recall a movie made many years ago called The Train … “The Train is a 1964 black-and-white war film directed by John Frankenheimer from a story and screenplay by Franklin Coen and Frank Davis, based on the non-fiction book Le front de l’art by Rose Valland, who documented the works of art placed in storage that had been looted by the Germans from museums and private art collections. It stars Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, and Jeanne Moreau.”

    I was wondering if this movie had a direct connection to your story…?

    1. Thank you George for your comment,

      The description of the movie The Train is very moving.

      The information on this site is absolutely and totally original research on my part from my investigations into the Durerer’s art after discovering “something” was wrong with so many “pictures.” The only connection to a movie like the The Train that could be said is that the HOLOCAUST could never have happened as it did if it wasn’t for the plans, conspiracies and greed of the Nuremberg government of Duerer’s time, which embroiled the Duerer’s into their plans, forcing the Duerer’s to use their art as a weapon against them. Through the encoding they tried to save their “own” Jews but failed but continued to do so through their lifetimes. The story of their fight against barbarism and inhumanity is buried, encoded and revealed in their art., which is what I’m disclosing.

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