Restitution claims and cultural heritage claims seem to be gathering pace. After years of rather slow progress on these fronts, these stories now seem to be hitting the news on a regular basis.

Could it be “the times they are a changin’?”

The French Minister of Culture announced on 14th February 2013 that seven artworks stolen by the Nazis from two Jewish families would be returned.

This case has taken over 12 years to resolve.

The principal claim has been brought by Tom Selldorff, Richard Neumann’s 82 year old descendant, who lives in Massachusetts.

What is perhaps surprising is that 1000s of artwork continue to hang in important French museums such as the Louvre – that are “unclaimed.” Such was the extent of the Nazis looting, an estimated 100,000 paintings and antiques were taken from Jewish families that were living in France.

After the war, the Allies who recovered the looted artwork, in cases where they could not find the owners, sent the art to governments across Europe. As a consequence stolen artwork has ended up in museums all over the world.

What is surprising is that the French Ministry of Culture usually return these objects at an extraordinarily slow pace and has led to an average of only one artwork being returned every year or so, according to Bruno Saunier (deputy director of collections at the French Service of Museums, as reported in the Times).

But now 7 are being returned all in one go.

According to an article by Helene Fouquet, France received over 61,000 pieces from the Allies and had returned about three-quarters of all artwork seized to the families that owned them by mid-1949. However the effort to return the remaining 2000 or so artworks halted after 1954. A website was set up in the 1990s that invites Claimants to come forward and since 1999, 33 million Euros has been provided by way of compensation but only 9 works have ever been returned.

In this case, six of the paintings were taken from the Neumann family. Richard Neumann was an Austrian Industrialist and avid art collector. According to AFP he had over 200 artworks in his villa in Vienna. The paintings that were taken by the Nazis, he had taken with him to Paris. Neumann had to sell his collection to dealers at vastly reduced prices so that his family could flee France, seeking refuge in Spain first and then onto Cuba.

The paintings are 18th Century Italian and German paintings.

They include a Portrait of Bartolomeo Ferracina by Alessandro Longhi, Abraham and the Three Angels by Sebastiano Ricci, The Apotheosis of John of Nepomuk by Francois-Charles Palko, The Allegory of Venice by Gaspare Diziani, Saint Francis of Paola by Franceso Salvator Fontebasso and The Miracle of Saint Eligius by Gaetano Gandolfi.

Three of these paintings were in the Louvre, the others were in the Museum of Modern Art of Saint Etienne, the Tours Fine Art Museum and the Agen Fine Arts Museum.    

The paintings were destined for a museum planned to be built by Hitler in Linz, Austria called the Fuhrermuseum.

The seventh painting, the Halt by Pieter Jansz Van Asch belonged to a Czech banker called Joesf Wiener.

His collection was taken by the Gestapo. Wiener was deported to and killed at Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic.

This painting was sent after the War to Paris as it was thought that it was owned by a Frenchman. For years this painting had hung in the Louvre.

Wiener’s widow had been unable to locate the painting as she had been looking for it in Germany. It was then discovered by the family who had tracked it down online in mid 2000.

What does this mean for museums?

With the better ability to track down the artwork, the modern digital age has helped descendants locate their ancestors’ stolen property.

Also importantly there is a growing understanding by the descendants of the original owners of the artworks of the ability to pursue these claims.

There is an appetite for these claims to be pursued in courts, particularly in America.

Significantly there is a conscious effort being made by the Museums and galleries not to be complicit and retain artwork that is not rightfully theirs.

The French government have this month started an initiative that will include a host of experts – historians, archivists and curators who will track down the families whose paintings were taken.

According to an article by Leon Watson in the Daily Mail, the Arts Council of England’s senior policy adviser Gerry McQuillan has said that the Spoilation Advisory Panel, that decides on whether there is a “moral case” to return art objects is ready to consider new claims. The panel is chaired by the Rt Hon Sir David Hirst retired Lord Justice of Appeal.

The reason the Neumann case had taken so long was the difficulties in ploughing through the historical archives and the careful process of having to piece together the archives.

It is detective work that can take many years.

Bruno Saunier the director of art collections at the French Ministry of Culture has said that the government will focus on locating the owners of 163 of the most expensive artworks as a starting point.  

As they say in Indiana Jones “we have top men working on it now”.

Shall we hold our breath? Or is there a genuine wind of change blowing?