Painting Stolen During WW II Returned to France

The National Gallery of Canada has been investigating art works with unclear histories. Thanks to meticulous Nazi bookkeeping of art stolen during World War II, a French painting in their collection was traced to its rightful owners in France.

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Massive art theft happened during World War II. Nazis pillaged the personal collections of many people - mainly wealthy Jews. Next week, Christie's will auction off one of those paintings in New York. It's an early 20th Century painting by Edouard Vuillard, and it's valued at around half a million dollars. The painting belongs to the Lindon family, who until a few years ago, didn't even know the paintings was theirs. Genevieve Oger reports from Paris.

GENEVIEVE OGER: It's called the Le Salon de Madame Aron, or Madame Aron's living room. The artist Edouard Vuillard was a French post impressionist painter. David Franklin, chief curator of the National Gallery of Canada, says it's classic Vuillard.

Mr. DAVID FRANKLIN (Chief Curator, National Gallery of Canada): It's an interior a domestic interior, a very intimate painting of sort of confidants and friends of the artists. But painted in this very strange almost aquarium-like atmosphere and light that gives his work such a special intimacy and a unique quality.

OGER: At the beginning of World War II a man called Alfred Lindon acquired the painting. He came from a poor family, but Alfred worked his way up the jewelry trade and soon became a internationally respected pearl expert. It was then that he started buying art.

Mr. DENIS LINDON (Grandson of Alfred Lindon): And he built up a very beautiful collection. When the war started in 1940, he had probably close to a 100 paintings. Among them, 60 or 65 were really first-rate paintings.

OGER: Seventy-nine-year-old Denis Lindon is Alfred Lindon's grandson. He says he remembers going to his grandfather's apartment every Thursday, a place where there was always a lot of music and art.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LINDON: He was a bon vivant, we should call him. He liked his food. He was rather fat because he ate too much. He was also fond of music and he read - but art was really the center of his life.

(Soundbite of music)

OGER: And then Nazis occupied Paris.

Mr. LINDON: My grandfather and his wife, they decided to leave for Britain and then for the United States, and left all the collection of paintings in a vault at the Chase Manhattan Bank.

OGER: A Nazi unit called the Commando for the Protection of Currency, forced the safe in December, 1940. They were looking for money but found art instead.

Mr. LINDON: But fortunately, while doing that, since they were very well organized, they made a complete list of all the paintings which they had stolen. They said on list: from the Jew Lindonbaum(ph). They called my grandfather by the name he had at his birth, when he was born Lindonbaum, and his family changed the name during the First World War to the name of Lindon -because it was not very fashionable at that time to have a German name in England.

OGER: In the years after the war, it's not clear what happened to the painting. The National Gallery of Canada purchased it from a private Paris gallery in 1956. Forty years later, Holocaust-era art theft gained widespread attention, so the Canadian museum set up a Web site of about 100 works of art that had gaps in ownership and began to investigate.

The museum tracked down Jacques Lindon, one of Alfred Lindon's five sons, twice in 2000.

Mr. FRANKLIN: Jacques Lindon, at the time, insisted that there was no evidence that the painting had, in fact, been confiscated by the Nazis.

OGER: David Franklin from the Canadian Museum.

Mr. FRANKLIN: And so he did the honorable thing, obviously, and insisted that we keep the painting.

OGER: But by the year 2000, Jacques was in his 90s and couldn't recall the painting. The case appeared to be closed. Ironically, it was the scrupulous Nazi record-keeping that proved the Lindon family were the rightful owners. The French government recently published an updated list of good looted during the Nazi era. It contained the information needed to fill in the blanks.

Mr. LINDON: (Reading) (Speaking foreign language)

OGER: Denis Lindon reads a letter sent to him by the museum again in 2003. The letter, supported by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirmed the painting would be returned to the family. It was a bittersweet moment for the museum. The Salon de Madame Aron was the museum's only Vuillard, and it was of course difficult to see it go.

Mr. FRANKLIN: One becomes very attached to anything in the collection. There was certainly no hesitation, and it obviously would be impossible to keep a work knowing that it had that sort of history.

OGER: Before the transfer of the painting could be completed, though, the 15-or-so legal heirs had to be found, including many who had never even heard of Alfred Lindon. None of these heirs could afford to buy out the others, so the painting will be auctioned off. For Denis Lindon, it's sad, but it's still a great story - one his grandfather, who died in 1948, would have been delighted to hear.

For NPR, I'm Genevieve Oger in Paris.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

We'll have more in a moment on DAY TO DAY.

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