January 30, 2014, the New York Times reporter, Doreen Carvajal shared her story of trying to reconnect the fine art that was stolen by the Nazi’s to their rightful owners, or their descendants. Her story begins with her sitting in her living room in Paris, France. Her plan was to see if she could reconnect Jewish families and other victims with fine art that was stolen from their relatives during the Second World War.
She has admitted to have no detailed knowledge of the Holocaust nor does she have a degree in art history. She claims that her knowledge and experience of genealogy is on par with an amateur; although she was able to trace her own family’s history to that of 15th century Spain. One thing in her favor is that she tracks people for a living as a reporter. She was intrigued by the difficulties the French authorities have had while trying to locate the heirs of more than 2,000 works of unclaimed art that was looted or sold during the war. These works are now housed in various French museums.
For the past 60 years, the French were able to return only 80 pieces of art. The rest—some of which are masterpieces—sit or hang in French museums. These museums are their guardians until the pieces can be rightfully claimed by their owners. Critics have complained the efforts to find the heirs have been ineffective and slow; even with the use of online genealogy resources and the popularity of social media outlets.
This is where Doreen decided to take on the task of locating the owners of some of the orphaned pieces. At first, Doreen experienced the same complications the French government had. Many of the families didn’t even realize they were missing these treasures. With the chaos of the war and the passage of time, families have a tendency to lose track of their property; relatives die and the history, stories, and their documents tend to vanish with them.
This is a story that many paintings have in common. One in particular is by Gustave Courbet which hangs in the Impressionist section of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. It took Doreen almost two weeks to find someone who may be the painting’s owners; a descendent of a Jewish emigrant from Russia and her husband who were consigned the Courbet painting for sale before they were arrested and deported to Auschwitz. The couple was childless and perished in the camp. Doreen was able to contact a relative and notified her of the findings. The relative has since filed a claim on the painting.
From here, Doreen began to study more into the orphaned paintings. The possible heirs of two other paintings were more difficult to find. One of the art pieces was an Albrecht Durer chalk drawing from Hermann Goering’s stolen art collection. It once belonged to a French Resistance fighter, Gabrielle Tuffier. Tuffier was deported in 1943 after the Gestapo arrested her for transmitting radio signals from a castle located in the north of France.
Her brother, Nemours, owned another piece of art that Doreen was able to track down. This piece was a golden-hued triptych of Christ on the cross which had been painted by Rubes. It was sold under duress during the Nazi occupation of France and was recovered after the war in Linz, Austria. Here, it was stored and was waiting to be displayed in a museum that Hitler was planning. Doreen was able to find Tuffier’s grandson, Roland Nemours Tuffier, in a town located on the outskirts of Paris. She told him the painting now hangs in the Louvre on the second floor. He said neither he nor his relatives knew that they once owned it.
Doreen reveals that she had help with her mission. Gilad Japjet, the chief executive of MyHeritage.com, had helped her through the name changes, misspellings, false matches, and errors in family history. She also shares that there was nothing special about what they were doing. The process that they used was to search online family trees and the death records of Auschwitz victims. They also scoured digital databases in Israel for victims of the Holocaust and a photo catalog of the Bibliotheque Nationale. The French state’s own catalog of the works offered clues which was able to aid the pair in their searches. These clues included brief summaries of the painting’s history through the 1940s.
“There is really a wealth of information if you are trying to solve a mystery,” Japhet said. “I can only say it is not difficult, and everyone and do it.”
Since the 50s, the French have tried several times to locate the owners of the orphaned art works. In 1996 there was information about many of the pieces that was posted online. In 2004, it was replaced by a much more detailed inventory of the works. In 2008, there was an exhibition sponsored by France in Israel that showed 53 of the unclaimed art pieces.
Despite all their efforts, critics claim that the French have simply waited for possible heirs to claim the works, instead of seeking them out. Last year, Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti said the French would begin to be more proactive and appoint a group to establish the origins of the stolen art. In January she was able to announce the plan to return three of the works that people had made claims to. One of these pieces include a 17th century landscape by Joos de Momper.
“After six months of work,” the ministry said in an email that described the difficulties of the additional research, “it seems possible to identify the origin of 20 objects, even If these clues are only working hypotheses.”
Ministry personnel were not able discuss the other objects; but they did tell Doreen that one of the pieces was not the Courbet painting whose likely heir, Sylvie Tafani, Doreen had located last fall. Sylvie is the grandniece of Marc Wolfson. Wolfson was listed in the French records as the onetime owner of the Courbet. He and his wife, Ernestine Davidoff were members of an elite circle of expatriates from Russia who were in Paris when the German forces arrived.
Many Jews were afraid of property confiscations. Many of them sold works under duress at discounted prices. Mr. Wolfson consigned his Courbet to a dealer in 1941 who then sold it for 350,000 francs to the Folkwang Museum in Germany; from where it was recovered. The records did not say what Mr. Wolfson made from selling the piece. The records did say that Wolfson was arrested in July 1942 and died shortly after deportation. From there, the French records end.
Doreen guessed that Wolfson may have been sent to Auschwitz and then she searched through records from the camp which confirmed her suspicions. He died in the death camp shortly after he arrived.
Japhet had an idea to look for relatives on the tribute pages posted by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial website. It was here that Doreen was able to find a post that Ms. Tafani had posted in 1988. The post listed her home address and her name. Unfortunately, but the time Doreen had tried to contact Ms. Tafani, she was no longer living at the address. Doreen was able to find someone that name listed as a board member of a charity. When she called the charity, she was able to get Ms. Tafani’s email address.
When Doreen was able to reach Ms. Tafani, the woman knew nothing about Courbet’s painting, “The Etretat Cliffs After the Storm.” Tafani stated that her mother was so scarred by the war—she escaped deportation as a child only because she was hidden by the family—that she baptized her children as Protestant.
“It was not until I was 15 years old,” she said, “that I learned we were Jewish because my mother had such fear. It’s complicated. And so I tried to avoid asking questions that would make her cry.”