France Has Adopted a New Bill That Will Fast-Track the Return of Artworks Stolen During World War II

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France has adopted a new law facilitating the restitution of artworks forcibly taken from Jewish collectors by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. 

The bill, introduced by France’s Minister of Culture Rima Abdul Malak earlier this year, allows for Nazi-looted artworks in the country’s public collections to be transferred without the approval of parliament.

For centuries, French law has stipulated that state-owned objects are “inalienable.” To move them requires the passing of a dedicated law—a process that often takes years and has, in some cases, prevented restitutions from taking place at all.

Now, in the case of property proven to have been stolen from Jewish owners, authorities need only the permission of a special committee—the Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliation—to initiate a return. 

“This is a law of action, ensuring that the duty of remembrance and vigilance translates into concrete legal action,” the Culture Minister said in a statement, per the AFP.  

The bill was passed by the French Senate on May 23 and the National Assembly on June 29. Parliament officially adopted the text on July 13. It is France’s first piece of legislation to acknowledge the crimes committed against Jews during World War II, according to an announcement from the Ministry of Culture. 

Mon premier projet de loi vient d’être adopté à l’unanimité à l’Assemblée nationale ! Il permettra de faciliter les restitutions des biens culturels spoliés aux juifs entre 1933 et 1945. Fière d’avoir porté cette loi de reconnaissance, de justice et d’action. pic.twitter.com/FKjxn1yS2M

— Rima Abdul Malak (@RimaAbdulMalak) June 29, 2023

For Abdul Malak, amending France’s restitution laws has been a priority. During her annual New Year’s speech in January, the minister pledged to introduce three new bills easing restrictions on the removal of objects from public collections: the one just adopted, as well as two similar pieces of legislation relating to human remains and works of art acquired during the colonial era. 

For years, pressure to change France’s restitution processes has grown outside of the Ministry of Culture too.  

In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to return prized pieces of African heritage to their countries of origin. The announcement put France at the forefront of a larger cross-cultural conversation about repatriation and decolonization. But at the time of Abdul Malak’s January address, less than 30 of the estimated 90,000 African objects owned by France had been sent back to their country of origin. 

“I hope 2023 will be a year of decisive progress for restitutions,” the culture minister said in her speech. France’s approach to its own history is “neither one of denial nor of repentance, but one of recognition,” she added. 

Representatives from the Ministry of Culture did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the status of the other two proposed restitution laws. 

 

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