by Marc Masurovsky
Art is a commodity which can be traded like widgets. On January 17, 1944, a French company called “Compensex” [Compagnie commerciale d’exportation et de compensation] had the bright idea of proposing to the Vichy government an exchange of commodities to benefit Vichy France and the French export economy. Compensex was a subsidiary of the Banque Worms whose intricate intertwining financial and commercial interests with the French wartime economy and outlying investments in Axis-occupied Europe have been well-documented. [See in particular “Industriels et banquiers francais sous l’Occupation, by Annie Lacroix-Riz, Armand-Colin]
The exchange involved 200 tons of Hungarian sunflower oil worth about 12 million francs (1944 value) for an equivalent amount of paintings allegedly owned by the Galerie Charpentier in Paris, known for its intensive commercial activity during the German occupation of France. The works would be exported to Switzerland. They included paintings by Albert Lebourg, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro and other well-known modernists. The French ministry responsible for supplies and agriculture [ravitaillement et agriculture] notified the Ministry of Finance of its support for the proposed importation of the sunflower oil. The question remained whether the 50 or so paintings would be allowed to leave France.
On January 28, 1944, the French Fine Arts Administration gave its conditional support to the project as long as it could review the list of paintings offered for export.
It is not known, pending further research, whether the exchange actually took place. But it is worth noting that Switzerland was the favored destination for the paintings, thus guaranteeing their absorption in the Swiss market.
At the exact same time, Bruno Lohse, deputy director of the ERR in France and Martin Fabiani, leading collaborationist art dealer in wartime Paris, had hatched an elaborate plot to sell 54 paintings, mostly executed by 19th and 20th century artists officially reviled by Nazi doctrine, which had been confiscated from Jewish collections in and around Paris. Those paintings allegedly were removed from the Jeu de Paume where they had been stored for further disposition. The plot fell apart in February 1944 when Robert Scholz, administrative overseer of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) operations in occupied countries, personally intervened by traveling from Berlin to Paris to put a stop to what he perceived to be a barely disguised attempt by local officials to profit from confiscated Jewish cultural assets with the help of a notorious art dealer already implicated in the recycling of such property in France and abroad.
The moral of this story is that, once high-value cultural items are available for disposal following their misappropriation by State agents, their dispersal might be facilitated by the commercial and economic interests of the occupation forces and their local vassals, in this instance the German military administration as an extension of the Third Reich in France and the Vichy government and its complex relationship with financial institutions like the Banque Worms.
It is not clear whether Galerie Charpentier’s owners were aware of the Fabiani-Lohse arrangement, but their capacity to participate in complex commercial transactions with Vichy, the Germans and the so-called neutral countries is duly noted.