Repatriation by popular referendum

John Constable's "Dedham from Langham"
John Constable’s “Dedham from Langham”

Doreen Carvajal reports for the New York Times on a novel effort by Alain Monteagle to recover this work of art seized from his family in France during World War II. Monteagle is attempting to gather enough signatures to force a referendum:

So Mr. Monteagle and his relatives have taken to the soapbox. They are using the local Swiss system of popular referendums — which require the signatures of at least 10 percent of registered voters, 2,500 in this case — to  bring the issue before elected officials, since the museum is owned by the town. And they are taking the early, tentative steps required to force the local legislature to put an issue to a vote; if the legislature were to approve, more signatures could be gathered for a communitywide vote.

A referendum is it seems the only legal avenue remaining for Monteagle, as the Swiss Museum claims to have acquired the work by donation in 1986:

The Constable painting, “Dedham From Langham,” a 19th-century landscape of the English countryside, was seized in Nice, France, in 1943, along with all the valuables of Mr. Monteagle’s great-aunt, Anna Jaffé, a childless British expatriate and wealthy Jewish art collector who had died a year earlier. Her French heir, a nephew who was Mr. Monteagle’s grandfather, died in Auschwitz.

The pro-Nazi Vichy government of France organized an auction in Nice, unloading everything from silver sugar pots and tapestries to paintings by Turner and Tenier.

Ultimately, the Constable painting passed among three new owners during the war and was purchased by a Geneva gallery, which sold it in 1946 to René Junod. He was an art collector and Swiss businessman who, with his wife, left a collection of 30 paintings to the museum here in 1986, along with money for renovation and expansion.

Whether Mr. Monteagle’s effort will be successful or not remains to be seen. But his cause may certainly receive a boost from the high-profile article.

  1. Doreen Carvajal, Wooing the Public to Recover Art, The New York Times, March 18, 2014.

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