Protégé : Hunting two MNR

par Domitille LEHMAN, Hugues GARNIER

Protégé : Hunting two MNR

Protégé : Hunting two MNR

Domitille LEHMAN, Hugues GARNIER
Photos : Domitille LEHMAN, Hugues GARNIER
22 janvier 2018

Capture d’écran 2018-01-22 à 13.04.48

Sixty years after World War II, thousands pieces of art, which were looted by Nazis, have still not been restituted to their right holders. There are exposed in several museums as National Museum Recovery (MNR). Two Christophe Huet paintings are registered among them.    

Jews of France had been victims of an exceptional looting of works of art, and of various objects during the Second World War. Today, almost 2000 art works, called MNR (Musée Nationaux Récupération), are exhibited in museums, waiting for their pre-war owners. If we believe Emmanuelle Polack, art historian, this situation is not going to work out, in the extent that the right holders are further and further removed from the legitimate owners of the time, who are mostly dead, and that they don’t know most of the time the existence of these works or their affiliation to it.

Another problem explains the difficulty to restitute these works of art to their legitimate owners. This is the slowness of the public administration that took many decades to reopen the file of the “National Museum Recovery” (MNR), combined with the lack of will of the museums which do not wish, for evident reasons, to separate from some works.

The case of the MNR 126 and 127: “Chiens chassant”, and “Chiens et gibiers”, painted in 1738 by Christophe Huet, is a very speaking example of the disorganization between the different institutions, which precludes the restitution of these works of art.

About Christophe Huet
Museum of Hunting and Nature

The first one, « Chiens et gibiers » (MNR 126), represents two dogs, probably Brittany spaniels before what seems to be their catch.

The second one, « Chiens chassant » (MNR 127), also appears to represent these same dogs hunting. The dimension is the same for both paintings (60X80 cm). It can be assumed that these paintings have not been classified among the MNR in chronological order.

Christophe Huet's signature

Christophe Huet’s signature

These two paintings were painted by Christophe Huet, probably in 1738. We do not know much about this man except that he was an animal painter of the eighteenth century. His date of birth is blurry, 1694 ? 1700 ? It depends on the different sources. Obviously, he died in 1759. It is also common to confuse his works with those of his nephew Jean-Baptiste Huet who has been more successful.

On his Wikipedia page, there is a section entitled « Where to admire Huet? », but this list is incomplete : a museum is missing, the museum of Hunting and Nature (musée de la Chasse et de la Nature) in Paris, where the two MNR are located.

These two paintings are interesting for several reasons. Firstly because there were painted by the same artist and that these are the only two works of Christophe Huet listed among the MNR on the website. Then because there are both located in the same museum, in the 3rd borough of Paris. The two paintings are also inseparable: one is the counterpart of the other and there have never been separated, even during the Occupation, when there have been looted. And finally because there wasn’t a lot of information concerning these paintings.

Before the War
The two paintings exposed at the museum of Hunting and Nature

It immediately seemed obvious that to try to find the owner of these paintings, it was necessary to go back before 1944, date of the alleged spoliation.

The period is very wide, almost two centuries. Firstly, as the website France Archive mentions it, Christophe Huet was married to a woman called Jeanne Langlois. But the problem is that the name of the painter and the date of the wedding do not coincide with all the other sources related to the painter.

Secondly, according to the same website, Elisabeth Huet, the painter’s daughter, married a man called Claude Joseph Porquet.

Finally, it also reveals the transfer of furnitures and paintings by Jeanne Langlois to her daughter and son in law in 1761, two years after Christophe Huet’s death.

Then nothing… no other information about Christophe Huet, his wife, his daughter or his son-in-law. In addition, there is no exhaustive list of furnitures and paintings given by Jeanne Langlois to her daughter and her son-in-law, so the two MNR could have been sold before Christophe Huet’s death.

The Nazis period
Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

As written on the website of Rose Valland, a former curator of the Jeu de Paume museum (Paris), who has taken stock of all the looted works, these two paintings were bought on June 26, 1944 for 120.000 francs for the MNR 126, and for 200.000 francs for the MNR 127. But this is an old currency. There were actually sold for 3200 new francs, which represent 487,84€. The website specifies that there were bought by “Hermsen for the Dorotheum in Vienna”. The Dorotheum was founded in 1707 in Vienna and is one of the most important auction houses, and Theo Hermsen, as  written in the book Hitler’s Art Thief by Susan Ronald, worked for Hilderbrad Gurlitt and was specialized in exporting goods without any export permit.

Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

But, and this is the first contradiction encountered on this case between the different instances, in the archives of the Louvre, it is written that it was “exported to Germany by Hermsen for Herbst on July 1944” for the same price.

If it makes sense because Hans Herbst was the director of the Dorotheum, the difference of dates shows the lack of rigor of the Louvre. The dates are very important here because there was a real other sale of these two paintings in July, as we can see in their MNR plug.

There were sold to the Linz Museum in Austria on July 29, 1944 for 65.000 RM (reichsmark, which was the currency during Nazis period) which represent 13.000 new francs, either 1981,83€.

If in the Archives of Paris there is nothing about these sales, the Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs tell us that they were sold to Hermann Voss, who was the second director of the Nazi Fürhermuseum, which was the Linz Museum. He had been offered the job by Goebbels but was not a member of the Nazi party. The problem in this piece of archive is that the name of the painter is not good, insofar as it is written “François Huet” instead of “Christophe Huet”. It is not a fundamental detail, but it shows the huge lack of precision of the administrations which, accumulated, can really slow down the work of restitution.

After the War
Archive from Deutsches Historisches Museums

Archive from Deutsches Historisches Museums

 

In France, any archive evokes the period between 1944 and 1950, the date on which the works were return to France. This is on the website of the “Deutsches Historisches museum” that we can learn that the two paintings were recovered by the Central Collecting Point of Munich on July 19th, 1945, under the numbers 4873 and 4874. It is written that they sent them to France in December 3rd, 1948. What can be surprising in this archive is the name of the “presumed owner”, which is “Theo Hermsen”. Even if it is negligently strikeout and replaced by “France”, it seems to be at this precise moment that the research work was not done in time to worry about the real owner of pre-war. Furthermore, there is no trace of these paintings between December 3rd, 1948 and 1950.

After 1950, the archives are quite complete, and it is easy to trace the course of these paintings. As written on their plug in the Rose Valland website, there were “attributed to the Louvre by the Office of Property and Private Interest in 1950”. The archives of the Louvre explain that there were exposed at the Chapel Henri II of the Louvre between 1950 and 1956.

From 1956 and 1995, they were placed in the premises of the Ministry of Education. But a letter between Jean-Pierre Cuzin, general curator of the

Archive from the Louvre

Archive from the Louvre

Louvre Painting Department, and Jean-Pierre Samoyault, general administrator of the National Furniture, shows that the Louvre requested an investigation because they had doubts about the conditions of conservation of their two paintings. As there were placed in an “overheated room”, they asked for the return of the paintings. Nothing tells us about the condition of these two paintings between 1995 and January 24, 2007, except that the original frames have been renovated, and the paintings have been placed under glass, and still are today.

A correspondence between the Louvre museum and the museum of Hunting and Nature shows the interest of the latter for the paintings of Christophe Huet. In just a few months, the Louvre agreed to lend the two paintings for an indefinite period to the museum of Hunting and Nature at the time of its renovation, where they still are exposed.

There are obviously many difficulties to make some researches about paintings which were not realized recently, whom their painter wasn’t really famous and so few informations were listed.

There are other leads to follow. Christophe Huet lived rue Greneta in the 3rd borough in Paris and, after his death, her wife was hosted at the paroisse Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs, also in the 3rd borough in Paris.

Still, if you liked those paintings you can get them… in different websites where many replicas are available for sale, with the print, the size and the frame that you want !