French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot looks at the painting "Rosebushes under the Trees" (1905) by Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, during an event to announce the restitution of the artwork to a Jewish family from which it had been despoiled in 1938, at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, on March 15, 2021.
The vote authorises public museums holding the works, including the world-famous Musée d’Orsay in Paris, to hand over the property to the heirs of the original owners.
French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot welcomed the “historic” move.
It was the first time in 70 years that the French government had made serious steps to return artworks “that were acquired in troubling circumstances during the occupation because of anti-Semitic persecution”, she said.
She called the legislation a “first stage” in returning objects “still being conserved in public collections – objects that ought not, and should never have been there”.
The Senate approved the bill, after it cleared the lower house of parliament in late January. Now all it requires is the signature of President Emmanuel Macron to enter into force.
Thousands of paintings by some of the world’s most famous artists were looted or forcibly acquired during the Nazi occupation of France.
Since the end of the conflict, they have been kept in custody by public museums such as the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
In 2018, the government set up a special unit to try to track down the heirs of the owners, rather than waiting for them to come forward, in what was a bid to speed up the process.
One of the paintings set to be returned is titled “Rose bushes under trees” by Gustav Klimt. Currently held by the Musée d’Orsay, it is the only painting by the Austrian master owned by the French state.
It was acquired in 1980, but subsequent research has shown it was forcibly sold by Austrian collector Eleonore Stiasny in Vienna in 1938 before she was deported and killed.
In December, another four works of looted art were returned to their Jewish owner’s legal heirs.
The watercolours and drawings by French 19th-century artists were seized in 1940 from businessman Moïse Levi de Benzion.
Until these four works were returned, only 169 artworks had been restored to their owners since 1951 out of an estimated 2,200 held by the French state.
The French culture ministry estimates that a total of 100,000 artworks were seized in France during the war, when the country was administered by the Nazis and an anti-Semitic French collaborationist regime.
In November, France handed back 26 treasures looted from the West African nation of Benin during the colonial era, part of a separate pledge by Macron to restore some artworks to the continent.