Monday, November 14, 2011

Restitution Follies: 217 Years On, Belgium Claims a Rubens Seized by Napoleon, Days After France Recaptures a Painting “Stolen” in 1818

The latest player seeking restitution of art seized in long-ago wars is Belgium.  It wants France to return a painting by Peter Paul Rubens that was part of Napoleon’s vast art plunder. 

Rubens, "The Triumph of Judas Maccabee"
The painting, “The Triumph of Judas Maccabee,” was seized in the revolutionary wars in 1794, taken to Paris, and in 1804 sent to the Museum of Fine Arts in Nantes, when Napoleon distributed spoils of war to various provincial museums.  On Wednesday, the Parliament of the Federation of Wallonia-Brussels unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Culture Minister to “undertake all useful steps” to negotiate with France for its restitution.

“The Triumph of Judas Maccabee” is half of a diptych commissioned from Rubens by the Cathedral of Tournai in the 1630s.  Napoleon also stole the other half, but it made its way back to the cathedral in 1818.  Belgium wants to reunite the two parts in their original setting.

The prime proponent of the resolution, Senator Richard Miller, stressed that Belgium is only asking for the restitution of this one painting – at least for now -- and not the thousands of artworks that were taken during the Napoleonic wars.  "It would be foolish to think we could get everything back at once," he told the Agence France Presse.  "Still, we could try to get them back one item at a time, each case based on cast-iron arguments."

The "Black Africa" Issue

Miller seems aware that Belgium’s demand on France could come back to bite it, but in  his statement to Parliament, which is reprinted on his website, he nevertheless said it was not a matter of “our Museum Terveuren running the risk of having to return all that belonged to Black Africa.”

The Museum Terveuren is the Royal Museum for Central Africa, which was started, its website explains, in the late 19th century when King “Leopold II fulfilled his dream:  he obtained a colony for Belgium.”  And obtained, apparently, untold numbers of artworks and artifacts besides.

Tournier, "Christ Carrying the Cross"
Chances of France giving up an altar-sized Rubens that is in a public museum?

Not good, if you consider that France itself had earlier in the week seized a painting by Nicolas Tournier, “Christ Carrying the Cross,” being shown by English gallery owner Mark Weiss at a Paris art fair.

It’s generally understood that Weiss at all times acted in good faith and without knowledge that he owned a painting that had vanished into thin air a couple of centuries before.  The Augustins Museum’s chief curator -- who had organized a Tournier retrospective in 2001 -- had himself not recognized it even though he had seen photographs of the work before its display in Paris.
“Although it sounds incredible, I saw no connection to the museum painting. It was not until much later, after Weiss purchased it, following several messages from some of my colleagues, that I understood that this was the canvas that had disappeared from the museum after 1818,” he told La Tribune de l’Art.

"Inalienable" Art

Nevertheless, France claimed ownership.  "This was the property of the French state that was deposited at the Augustins Museum in Toulouse and was stolen in 1818. It is a non-transferable work," the French Culture Ministry said.

“Works in French public collections are inalienable and imprescriptible . . . This means that an object which enters a museum cannot be taken away, in any way, forever in time,” La Tribune de l’Art explained, writing about the Tournier.

Presumably, the same principle would apply to the Rubens in the museum in Nantes.

For her part, Blandine Chavanne, director of the Nantes museum, said, “Be aware that UNESCO has made a decision in saying that all the works in museums acquired before 1970 were considered property of the museums,” the AFP reported.

The museum has regularly loaned out the Rubens, including in to the cathedral at Tournai, a policy it may want to revisit.

Images: Rubens taken from Musee des Beaux Arts, Nantes, website; Tournier pulled from the internet.

Text Copyright Laura Gilbert 2011