The oldest restitution claim in history?

November 8 2011

Image of The oldest restitution claim in history?

Picture: BBC/AFP

The French government has placed an export ban on a painting it says was stolen almost 200 years ago. The Carrying of the Cross by Nicolas Tournier was being exhibited in a Paris art fair by London-based dealer Mark Weiss. But French officials have said the picture has been missing from a state museum since 1818. Mark Weiss, it seems, now cannot take the picture back to his London gallery.

The French Culture Ministry said:

This was the property of the French state that was deposited at the Augustins Museum in Toulouse and was stolen in 1818. It is a non-transferable work," [...] "We are claiming this painting as the property of the state and it will not leave the country."

The French government's action is a very strange one. How far back do we have to go before restitution cases become untenable? Surely a painting 'stolen' in 1818, if indeed it was, cannot now be reclaimed? What about the mass of art stolen by Napoleon and his forces from across Europe? There is an irony too in that the picture was itself stolen (or rather, 'confiscated') by the French state during the revolution, from the chapel of the Company of Black Penitents in Toulouse. The effect of this decision will doubtless be far reaching, not least for museum loans of items that do not have full provenance (which is most things).

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