The Louvre is the world’s largest art museum, boasting more than 35,000 works of art on display across 300 rooms. It’s so big, it would take you no less than 100 days to visit every piece, and that’s only if you spent 30 seconds on each one.
However, there’s one particular room that stands out, not because its paintings are the most artistically accomplished nor the most beautiful, but because their very existence is entwined with a mysterious legacy that goes back to World War II.
For the first time since 1945, the Louvre has an area officially dedicated to presenting the Nazi-looted artworks of its collection. The main intention is to encourage the descendants of the works’ original owners to reclaim what is rightfully theirs, so that they can be reunited at long last.
These 31 paintings, now on permanent display, feature a range of styles and eras, from Renaissance Italy to pre-Revolutionary France, even covering the Dutch Golden Age. They figure into one of the most ambitious restitution efforts the museum has ever attempted.
“Our objective is very clearly to restitute everything we can,” explained Sébastien Allard, the Louvre’s chief curator of paintings, as reported in The Washington Post. “It’s very important that we present the ‘MNR’ (Musées Nationaux Récupération) works in a separate space,” he added. However, not everyone is satisfied with this gesture, as many people argue its arrival is too little too late.
“This is half-hearted – I’m sorry. From the Louvre I expect more,” said Christopher Marinello, a restitution lawyer in London. Among his many achievements in this delicate field is having overseen the 2014 transfer of Henri Matisse’s 1937 Profil bleu devant la cheminée from the Henie Onstad Museum in Oslo back to the heirs of Parisian art dealer Paul Rosenberg.
“This is the type of thing that should have been done in the late 1990s,” Marinello said. “The fact that this comes 20 years after the Washington Principles is completely pathetic, especially for a museum with the funding and the stature that the Louvre has.”
These efforts highlight the wider, ongoing issue of artwork stolen by the Nazis. Given that many of the original owners were Jewish victims of Nazi persecution who fled in haste, it can be a very difficult task to track them down, especially if they didn’t leave meticulous records.
However, the Louvre is hoping to make the restitution process easier by publicly highlighting which artworks were stolen. There were roughly 61,000 stolen artworks returned to France after World War II, and so restituting these 31 is a small but necessary step towards justice.