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France set to return a Klimt and other Nazi-pillaged artworks to Jewish families

Xiaofei Xu and Camille Knight, CNN

Several Nazi-pillaged artworks held in France’s national collections could soon to be reunited with the families of their previous Jewish owners.

The French National Assembly passed a law on Tuesday to return 15 artworks looted by authorities during the Nazi period.

“It’s a bill that we can describe as historic,” French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot said to the French Parliament ahead of the vote.

“It’s the first time since the post-war period that the government is showing a legal commitment towards the restitution of pieces from public collections.”

The bill was adopted with unanimous support at the National Assembly and is set to be reviewed by the Senate.

The artworks involved in the restoration are stored and exhibited across five different locations in France, including the famous Louvre and Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Gustav Klimt’s oil painting “Rosebushes Under Trees” features among the 15 pieces to be returned by Paris. The painting, which is housed at the Musée d’Orsay, is the Austrian artist’s only work currently stored in France’s national collections.

The French government originally bought the painting in 1980, without knowing its background history, Bachelot told France’s Parliament. It was only recently that researchers from France and Austria discovered the painting belonged to Eleonore Stiasny, also known as Nora Stiasny, niece of Jewish Austrian collector Viktor Zuckerkandl.

Stiasny was forced to sell the piece at a ridiculously low price in August 1938, shortly after Nazi Germany took over Austria. Stiasny was later deported and killed by the Nazis in 1942.

Other pieces share similar stories. Twelve of the 15 artworks belonged to Armand Dorville, a French Jewish lawyer. The French government bought them at a public auction in Nice in June 1942, held after the death of Dorville. Even though the auction was organized by Dorville’s heirs, it was monitored by the Vichy regime, a collaboration government set up by Nazi Germany in France, according to Bachelot.

This return is the first step in France’s effort to reconcile with this dark period of its history.

Bachelot vowed her support for a system that will help restore stolen arts during this period to their owners as she spoke before lawmakers on Tuesday.

Roughly 100,000 artworks were looted in France during the war, according to a report published by the Working Party on the Spoliation of Jews in France, set up by the French government in 1997.

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