The Strange Chlomovitch Affair

THE STRANGE CHLOMOVITCH AFFAIR

The opening in 1946 of a safe rented in a Paris branch of the Societe Generate bank by Erich Chiomovitch, a young Yugoslav Jewish student who had been the friend of the famous French collector and dealer Ambroise Vollard, enabled the discovery of some 200 major modern works which he had received as a gift by the latter.

Chiomovitch had become the friend of Vollard shortly after his death in a car crash in July 1939. At the outbreak of World War Two, the young student returned to Yugoslavia with 429 pieces out of some 600 that Vollard had gathered and which later went to the National Museum of Belgrade. The rest was left in the safe of the Societe General bank in Paris But after the invasion of Yugoslavia by the Wehmarcht in April 1941, Jews soon started to face Nazi persecutions. Bernard Chiomovitch and his two sons, Erich and Egon, were eventually murdered in the concentration camp of Sajmiste in May 1942 and only his wife Rosa, nee Herzler, managed to survive the Holocaust. In October 1946, the bank noticed that the rent due for Erich Chlomovitch's safe had not been paid and proceeded to its opening. Its officials however respected the 30-year legal period before sifting through the content of the wooden box which had been previously stored in the safe in order to recover some US $ 6,000 due for its renting.

After an inventory made in 1979, the bank decided to sell the collection, which included a portrait of the French writer Emile Zola by Cezanne painted in 1861, a painting by Matisse produced in 1903, another by Derain dated 1905 and several prints by Degas as well as drawings by Renoir. The bank's much publicized decision prompted a reaction from the heirs of the Chiomovitch family whose counsel retorted that the Societe Generate bank had done nothing to trace them back. They also expressed some surprise at the fact that the bank had taken the decision to sell all the Vollard pieces, valued at some US $ 550,000, whereas the rent due for the safe was not so important. The sale was cancelled in 1981 and several courts were subsequently seized to determine the true ownership of the remainder of Vollard's collection.

The heirs of Eric Chiomovitch first obtained satisfaction but a supreme court quashed in 1993 a former decision given in their favour. Three years later another court allocated the collection to a distant heir of Vollard while certain pieces which bore Vollard's dedication to Chiomovitch were given to his heirs. This judgement was somewhat ackward as no one could have challenged the fact that Eric Chiomovitch was the true owner of the Vollard collection.

The Chiomovitch affair is one of the many unanswered problems faced by French banks, which are now trying to trace back the owners of many accounts which had been seized by the Vichy regime during the war.

The official mission on spoliations presided over by Jean Matteoli has notably requested a group of historians and jurists to look into the archives of French banks but their tasks seems quite complicated to the fact that many documents were destroyed during the past 50 years. Some 68 000 bank accounts were frozen during the Second World War in France and at least 70% of owners or their heirs made themselves known after the war. So far banks have only achieved ridiculous results in their attempts to identify the owners of those accounts whose owners remain to be identified.

French banks are envisaging the setting up of a special fund to indemnify victims of the Shoah in an effort to defuse a tricky situation resulting from the strong actions of the World Jewish Congress and other Jewish groups against banking institutions which had frozen Jewish assets deposited in their branches during the war.

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