Frances

France’s Ministry of Culture Is Pushing Forward a Trio of Groundbreaking Laws That May Have Sweeping Effects on Restitution


French politicians are planning to introduce three framework laws intended to facilitate the restitution of contentious artworks as well as human remains currently held within the country’s public collections. 

The trio of bills was announced by France’s ministry of culture this week. In what would be a first, one of the bills also offers an opportunity to legally acknowledge crimes committed against Jews during World War 2 by the French state, according to a French senator involved in drafting the bills.

Ever since French president Emmanuel Macron made the sweeping 2017 pledge to return African artifacts to the continent, in an attempt to ease relations with former French colonies, a waiting game has ensued; so far, 26 objects stolen from the ancient Palace of Abomey in Benin were restituted to the African country; one object was returned to Senegal; another is on long-term loan to Madagascar. Compared to other European countries, France is considered to be lagging behind on the issue of restitution, despite Macron’s groundbreaking promise. According to the 2018 Sarr-Savoy report on restitution, France has an estimated 90,000 African artifacts in its public museums.

A visitor goes through the exhibition "Art of Benin of yesterday and today: from Restitution to Revelation" at the Marina Palace of Cotonou on July 27, 2022. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

A visitor goes through the exhibition “Art of Benin of yesterday and today: from Restitution to Revelation” at the Marina Palace of Cotonou on July 27, 2022. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Though parliament voted in favor of returning individual works, progress has been marred by disagreement over procedures for larger-scale returns, and by the fact that objects entering France’s national collection are deemed inalienable by law, meaning that they can only be removed in case-by-case parliamentary votes.

“I hope 2023 will be a year of decisive progress for restitutions,” said French culture minister Rima Abdul Malak in her annual, New Year speech on Monday, January 16. The country’s approach to its own history is “neither one of denial nor of repentance, but one of recognition,” she added. Earlier, Abdul Malak announced the laws would be up for vote this year, making it possible to return an artwork as well as human remains currently in the national collection, without having to revert to parliament for approval, accelerating the process.

The laws will target human remains in museums, an amended version of an earlier bill proposed last year by French senators; another will address works belonging to Jewish families persecuted during the Nazi era; the third considers restitution of art objects, including those from the colonial era. The latter bill is spearheaded by former Louvre director Jean-Luc Martinez and notably addresses the return of art objects to Africa, among others. Martinez’s duties as France’s cultural heritage ambassador were reduced after being charged with “complicity” in organized fraud and money laundering in connection to a global art trafficking scandal. 

Growing public awareness around the issue of restitution has spurred this week’s announcement. The minister of culture “is very mobilized on the issue, which is a major change,” according to senator and vice president of a senatorial commission on culture, education and communication Pierre Ouzoulias, who has helped push restitution efforts.

French Culture Minister Rima Abdul-Malak arrives for the first weekly cabinet meeting of the new cabinet at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris, France, on May 23, 2022. Photo: Gao Jing/Xinhua via Getty Images.

French Culture Minister Rima Abdul-Malak arrives for the first weekly cabinet meeting of the new cabinet at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris, France, on May 23, 2022. Photo: Gao Jing/Xinhua via Getty Images.

With senators Catherine Morin-Desailly and Max Brisson, Ouzoulias proposed a bill in 2021 that was unanimously approved by the senate, to return human remains, but it was blocked by members of Macron’s administration at the time. The amended bill is likely to be put to vote before June. Morin-Desailly, who will present it, said that with continued, increasing demands from foreign nations asking for restitutions, “we’re at a critical point of no-return.” 

In separate interviews, Morin-Desailly and Ouzoulias both noted that the new laws would entail special committees of scientific and legal experts that would include counterparts from the countries requesting restitution. Together, they would determine if an object meets criteria needed to remove it from France’s national collections. Once that conclusion is made, the sitting administration would decide whether or not to return an object, without having to revert to parliament as it does now.

The government will also need to streamline a plan to catalog objects of questionable provenance in French museums, particularly human remains, the total number of which are not known.

The framework law concerning cultural goods seized during France’s Vichy government is also an opportunity to state within law the crimes the French state committed against Jews during World War 2, as justification for the return of an object, said Ouzoulias. Currently, he added that no such wording exists in French law, and he is advocating for such an inclusion in the bill. Both Ouzoulias’ grandparents were in the French Resistance. 

“Without Germany asking them to do so, the Vichy government voted very early for laws which stripped Jews of certain rights … including material goods and artworks,” he noted. Though restitutions have been made to Jewish victims by the French state, and former French president Jacques Chirac officially recognized the state’s anti-Semitic laws of the time, Ouzoulias said France’s parliament has not examined the damage Vichy legislation inflicted upon Jews, while  French courts have. “What’s missing is recognizing it in the law,” he said. “We can offer legal measures to repair those damages … and we can start with artwork.”

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An Art Dealer Discovered a Rare Miniature Portrait of France’s Cross-Dressing King. Now, He Wants to Sell It to the Louvre


Last year, a regional auction house in England sold a matchbox-sized painting of a man thought to be Sir Walter Raleigh.

But that identification wasn’t quite right, according to the savvy art dealer who snatched it up. It’s actually a rare miniature portrait of Henri III, France’s controversial cross-dressing king, painted by an acclaimed artist in the 16th century.

Now the dealer is hoping to sell it to the Louvre. 

Philip Mould, who co-hosts the BBC’s “Fake or Fortune?” show, purchased the work site-unseen in an online auction last year. The true identity of the painting’s subject quickly became clear to him, but an even bigger surprise came when its locket-like frame was later opened by a conservator. 

On the painting’s reverse was the signature of Jean Decourt, famed painter of the French court, and the date 1578. It’s believed to be the only example of an artwork bearing the artist’s name still in existence today.

“We can now firmly and finally imprint 16th-century royal portraiture with Decourt’s name,” said Celine Cachaud, a portrait miniatures specialist who works at Paris’s National Institute for Art History, in a statement. “This groundbreaking discovery will have a major impact on the study of late Valois portraiture and miniature painting in years to come.”

Mould is now offering the Louvre right of first refusal on the painting, which is appropriate, he explains, since it was likely executed in the royal residence—the building occupied by the museum today.

“This work is a French national treasure,” the dealer said in a statement, calling it a “hugely significant unpublished image of a misunderstood king, and confirmation of Jean Decourt’s immense talent.” 

“It would be wonderful if it could ‘come home’ to Paris, as I believe that is where it truly belongs,” he added.

The back side of Jean Decourt's miniature portrait of Henri III, bearing the artists signature. Courtesy of Philip Mould & Company.Courtesy of Philip Mould & Company.

The back side of Jean Decourt’s miniature portrait of Henri III, bearing the artists signature. Courtesy of Philip Mould and Company.

Mould did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the price he paid for the work, which was likely a fraction of its true value, potentially in the several hundreds of thousands of pounds, according to the Telegraph

Just over two inches long, the painting shows Henri III in jewels and a bonnet—a familiar depiction of the man who was the king of France from 1574 until his assassination in 1589, at the hands of a Jacobin friar. Indeed, Henri’s penchant for wearing women’s clothes was well documented in his day, as was his coterie of male companions. Images of his likeness became rare after the French Revolution as it was dangerous to own royal portraits.

Decourt became the official court artist in 1572 under the rule of King Charles IX. His best-known portraits include those of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I.

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