On 16 January, the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill’s Ackland Art Museum returned a painting to the estate of the renowned Jewish art collector Armand Isaac Dorville.
The work, The Studio of Thomas Couture (attributed to a student of Couture’s), belonged to the French lawyer before being auctioned off in 1942 in an effort to help his family flee the Vichy regime. (Dorville himself had previously fled to the “free zone” in southern France, where he died in 1941 of natural causes.) Nazi influence robbed the Dorville heirs of money made from the sale; Dorville’s sister, nieces and grand-nieces were subsequently deported to Auschwitz and murdered. The 1942 auction included 450 works by the likes of Delacroix, Rodin, Renoir, Manet, Degas, Bonnard, Vuillard and Signac; a number of these have recently been subject to restitution claims.
The Studio of Thomas Couture has no known provenance between its sale during the war and its purchase from a French dealer in 1972 by the Ackland, where it has lived in the museum’s collection ever since.
During the restitution ceremony, Dana Cowen, a curator at the Ackland, noted the painting’s impact on the UNC student body. “Since the subject matter [of the painting] has to do with students learning from their teacher, it has been featured in exhibitions with that in mind,” she said. “In that way, it has helped students understand the process of how artists worked in 19th century Paris.”
Raphaël Falk, Dorville’s great-nephew and an heir to his estate, represented the family at the ceremony. “I think he would be glad to see us thinking about him,” Falk said of his great-uncle. “We’re still trying to do our best to get his whole collection back together. It’s going to be very difficult, but we’re just beginning, and we will pass on this task to our children.”
The museum’s director, Katie Ziglar, noted that the art historian Éléonore Delabre’s efforts in the research and return of art looted from Jewish families during the Second World War were instrumental in this painting’s ultimate restitution.