A short history of the works looted from the Louvre, from Napoleon to today

A short history of the works looted from the Louvre, from Napoleon to today

Negligence or complicity? The former president and director of the Louvre Jean-Luc Martinez has been indicted for “complicity in fraud in an organized gang and laundering by false facilitation of the origin of assets resulting from a crime or misdemeanor”. The man who was the head of the museum between 2013 and 2021 claims his innocence in the antiquities trafficking case which has been investigated since 2018 by the Central Office for the Fight against Trafficking in Cultural Property (OCBC) and the judge Jean-Michel Gentil – who had put Nicolas Sarkozy under examination in the Woerth-Bettencourt case.

Jean-Luc Martinez is more specifically suspected of having authorized, in 2016, the acquisition by the Abu Dhabi Louvre –object of a contract binding for thirty years the museum institution and the United Arab Emirates– stolen Egyptian antiquities, for a sum exceeding 15 million euros. The integrity of the intermediaries of this transaction had already been undermined following the sale of a looted sarcophagus to the Metropolitan Museum from New York. Incidentally, it’s a photo of Kim Kardashian posing in front of the stolen item. who precipitated the opening of an investigation. Investigation which ultimately led in 2019 to the return of the sarcophagus to Egypt.

Small agreements between friends?

The OCBC doubts that Jean-Luc Martinez, former director of the largest museum in the world, could have been as naïve as he claims. And for good reason: exactly one year ago, the Louvre welcomed an exhibition of looted works in Libya and the Middle East, for “fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property”. Funerary statues, seized in France when they were about to be exported illegally, as well as two bas-reliefs were presented there “in order to alert the public on these endangered heritage issues”.

Highly criticized for his management of the museum, Jean-Luc Martinez – who unsuccessfully applied for a third term – is accused of having “damaged the image of the Louvre” by some of his collaborators having testified for Mediapart. In 2021, his name was linked to another case: that of the purchase of a fresco by Tiepolo against the advice of the head of the department of paintings at the Louvre, who considered it in poor condition and far too expensive (4.5 million euros).

The transaction would have actually hidden another: the seller, an Italian art dealer, would have in fact played the patrons and financed simultaneously the publication of a book written by… Jean-Luc Martinez. Moreover, the origin of the fresco would prove to be doubtful, its course in the years 1930-1940 remaining opaque. A shame for the Louvre, which makes a point of offering total transparency on the origin of the 1,700 paintings purchased since 1933 and which returned some looted works.

A museum curator also confided to M.ediapart its former president’s obsession with “the royal character of the Louvre” That he wanted “at all costs to recreate, […] as if it were a question of erasing the revolutionary and republican heritage of the museum”.

Military and artistic victories

The current Louvre would perhaps not have existed without Bonaparte and his Napoleon Museum, the lootings of the emperor establishing the foundations of the universal museum. But, unlike Jean-Luc Martinez, Napoleon saw in it a perpetuation of revolutionary ideals and the implementation of the vision of lights.

In 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte went to Italy with the order to bring back artistic masterpieces intended to enrich the collections of the former Louvre palace, which has become a museum for all citizens. The Management Board executive is persuaded that you will regard the glory of the fine arts as attached to that of the army which you command. Italy owes them in large part its wealth and its fame: but the time has come when their reign must pass in France to strengthen and embellish that of Liberty., is it thus written in an order of the Directoryintended for the young general, in 1796.

Napoleon had understood the stakes of the capture well: during the first war campaign in the Netherlands which had just ended, the revolutionary army had seized several hundred major works of Flemish painting – including at least fifty-five paintings by Rubens and eighteen by Rembrandtsas well as Van Dycks.

If these latter paintings were simply confiscated from those who owned them, the works looted in Italy were often the subject of contracts signed by their coerced owners or by the Italian states. When they resisted, the army punished the recalcitrant by helping themselves – ransacking the monuments in which the works were integrated. In Venice, churches were looted in the same way as private collections.

In 1978, the convoy of stolen works of art made a triumphal entry into Paris, the horse sculptures confiscated from Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, perched on a chariot drawn by six horses; they will end up at the top of the Carrousel du Louvre, and the lion of the basilica perched on the place des Invalides.

In 1798, the convoy of works of art stolen by Napoleon made a triumphal entry into Paris (engraving by Paul-Gabriel Berthault). | Public domain via Wikimedia Common

followed the graceful Venus de Medici(now at the Uffizi, in Florence), the famous Belvedere Apollo, the Discobolus and the Laocoon, but also live exotic animals, Vatican manuscripts, precious objects and paintings that could not be seen but were nonetheless acclaimed. The loot “is finally on a free land”, declared General Bonaparte at the time. We had also not failed to allude to the origin of the four horses, brought back to Venice by the Italians in 1204 following the sack of Constantinople: “Rome lost them. Their fate changed twice, it will change no more.”

“Eternal Symbols of Genius
free nations”

For art historian Valter Curzi, interviewed by Altritaliani, “What’s important is knowing how to reflect on the reasons that led France to carry out this operation”.

“France at the end of the 18the and the beginning of the 19the century is preparing to become an empire, with a universalist breath that requires it to re-establish the rules of civil life. Heritage will be useful to it, through its identity character, to consolidate its position in the eyes of French and foreign public opinion.explains the author of the article, Domenico Biscardi.

Looted works are thus considered as “eternal symbols of the genius of free nations”. Beyond the aesthetic value of these works, continues Domenico Biscardi, “Classical art, Greek and Italian, offers a vision of the individual and of the values ​​which should ideally guide his actions. It is for this same reason that the European elites completed the Grand Tour by crossing Greece and Italy for several months: to educate themselves and train themselves in the principles of good government.

In the eyes of Bonaparte, this recovery was therefore perfectly justified, says Valter Curzi to France 24: “As a free nation which had freed itself from the tyranny of the monarchy, France believed that it could seize these masterpieces of antiquity and the Renaissance which were also the fruit of free regimes and democratic.”

Half of the works returned

The looting lasted for a decade. In 1810, Dominique Vivant Denonfirst director of the Louvre Museum (appointed director of the Central Museum of Arts in 1802, then of the Napoleon Museum), traveled to Tuscany to bring back new masterpieces from the Renaissance Italian, which will complete the collection of works looted during the Napoleonic campaigns in Prussia, Austria or on the Iberian Peninsula.

After the fall of the Empire and the defeat of Waterlooit was necessary to negotiate the return of the works demanded by the members of the Seventh Coalition. Of more than 500 paintings taken from Italy, around 250 have been returned – but those confiscated in the Netherlands or Spain, and which have not been the subject of contracts, have only rarely been returned. recovered by their original owners.

At the Louvre, the famous Wedding at Cana, by Paul Veronese (picture painted in 1563) are still hanging on the wall. The painting occupies a place of choice, facing the Mona Lisa. Almost ten meters long, the canvas had to be cut in half during the trip. Too fragile to make the return trip, it was exchanged in 1815 for a work by the French Charles LeBrun –Pascal Torres, author of Secrets of the Louvre, estimate that “Venice lost in the change”. The journey of the scattered works is sometimes difficult to trace. From 1807, they often left to enrich the collections of provincial museums.

The huge fresco by Paul Veronese, The Wedding at Cana, had to be cut in half to travel from Italy to France. | Public domain via Wikimedia commons

A restitution model?

Vivien Richard, director of the history department of the Louvre, points out, to the New York Timesbeyond the controversy, the founding role of Napoleon in the constitution of the museum and the birth of modern museography: “He really founded the Louvre Museum as we understand it today by the richness and variety of the collections presented.” “It was a process of enriching the collections and of encyclopedia vocation, which continued.”

The creation of the Louvre, then the restitution of the works, led to the creation of many European museums, in the capitals as well as in the provinces. Always interviewed by the New York Times, art historian Bénédicte Savoy, co-author ofa report on the restitution of African cultural heritagecommissioned by Emmanuel Macron in 2018, believes that the “dismantling of the Louvre serves as a model for the cultural restitutions that follow”. The plunder of Africa by French colonial forces extended over a much longer period, making the possibility of restitution even more complex.

“Predation economy”

The doctored certificates of the works purchased by the Louvre, which led to the fall of Jean-Luc Martinez, are only the tip of the iceberg represented by this illegal market. Professor of Archeology of the Orient at the University of Poitiers, Vincent Michel, interviewed by Agence France-Pressedenounces a colossal traffic “born from clandestine excavations and aggravated by impoverishment, which has been growing since the Arab springs of 2011”. The objects are stolen from Syria, Egypt or Iraq, from archaeological sites such as necropolises, “genuine open-air supermarkets”.

The laundering of the stolen objects takes place, then, “by mixing false and true information, inventing pedigrees, fabricating false export documents or purchase invoices” which make their origin doubtful “almost undetectable”, says the specialist. The expert deplores this “predation economy” which he considers a damage “irreversible”: because, taken out of its context and its original frame, he assures us, the object “loses all scientific value”.

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