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More than 80 years after it was taken from a Jewish family, a painting at a NC museum returns home

A man and woman shake hands and smile while standing in front of a ornately-framed painting displayed on a tripod.
Johnny Andrews
UNC-Chapel Hill
UNC-Chapel Hill's Ackland Art Museum returned a painting to the descendants of Armand Dorville, which Ackland director Katie Ziglar described as a great honor. Raphaël Falk, Dorville's great nephew, flew from France to attend the event in person and shook hands with Ziglar.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Ackland Art Museum held a restitution event Tuesday, returning a painting that Nazi collaborators took from a Jewish family during World War II.

The painting, “The Studio of Thomas Couture,” was part of a collection of more than 450 works belonging to Armand Dorville, a prominent French and Jewish lawyer and art collector. The collection was auctioned off during World War II in the 1940s, with proceeds intended to help the family escape Nazi persecution. But, his family said the piece was purchased by a Nazi collaborator, and the proceeds from the auction were seized by the Vichy government's Commissariat-General for Jewish Affairs.

Much of Dorville's family was then murdered at Auschwitz concentration camp.

Dorville’s descendent, Raphaël Falk, flew from France for the Ackland’s restitution event. It marked the first time he saw the painting. Falk praised the Ackland for being the first American museum to return art pieces to Dorville's descendents.

Raphaël Falk, a descendant of Dorville, saw the painting for the first time on Tuesday. He is dressed in a white collared shirt and black jacket, with a big smile on his face.
Johnny Andrews
UNC-Chapel Hill
Raphaël Falk, a descendant of Dorville, saw the painting for the first time on Tuesday. He said the painting had been described to him before, but he had not seen pictures, so the painting was even more beautiful than he had thought it would be.

“By restoring this work, you are not only paying tribute to Armand Isaac Dorville, but also contributing to the preservation of truth and human dignity,” Falk said. “You are giving a voice to those who have been silenced and helping to shed light on the dark pages of our collective history. Beyond being an art event, the restitution of this work of art helps to keep a history alive. Not just the history of a family, but the history of a persecuted people whose men, women and children were hunted down, imprisoned, tortured and murdered.”

Falk said the painting was taken as part of Nazi “aryanization,” the taking of property from Jews in an effort to erase Jewish heritage from society.

Ackland officials said the museum obtained the artwork from a Parisian dealer in 1972, unaware of its recent history. Art historian Éléanore Delabre, who lives in France, established contact with the Ackland after learning the museum was in possession of the artwork in 2022.

“It is incumbent upon the museum to make sure that the claim is valid,” said Katie Ziglar, director of the Ackland Art Museum. “But once that information is carefully considered, then a resolution can come about. And if the work of art does not belong to the museum rightfully then, in our opinion, the only thing to do is to return it to its rightful owners.”

Of the more than 20,000 objects in the Ackland museum, Ziglar described “The Studio of Thomas Couture” as a strong voice in teaching the museum’s 10,000 student visitors each year. She said that while the painting will always be part of UNC-Chapel Hill’s history and legacy of teaching, it was very joyful to return the painting to Dorville’s family.

According to Ackland art curator Dana Cowen, the painting depicts the private studio of Thomas Couture, an influential painter and teacher to artists like Édouard Manet. The painting has been included in exhibitions due to its historical significance as a record of Couture’s studio, with it being of particular interest to Manet scholars.

"The Studio of Thomas Couture" is an ornately framed oil on canvas. A nude male and female take up most of the left of the painting, and students with easels paint the figures.
Johnny Andrews
UNC-Chapel Hill
"The Studio of Thomas Couture" is attributed to a student of the titular artist, and was painted in the 1800s. Ackland Art Museum acquired the painting in 1972.

“Though we are sad to see this painting is leaving the museum's collection, the Ackland recognizes the historical injustice suffered by the Dorville family and its heirs by the crimes committed during the Nazi era,” Cowen said. “Through the restitution of this work, we express our continued commitment to rectify such injustices of the past.”

The painting is the 22nd work of art to be returned to Dorville’s descendants. According to a press release, other pieces remain located in various museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“We call on all museums, all nations and every individual to follow this example,” Falk said at the Ackland’s restitution event. “To fully acknowledge the past and to work together to build the future founded on the principles of responsibility, understanding, tolerance and peace. The restitution of this work is therefore a symbol, an essential step on the long road to raising awareness and educating people about the history of the Holocaust and its consequences."

Falk said that reobtaining Dorville’s entire collection will be a difficult task, and one that Dorville’s descendants will continue to pass on to their children. Falk said he hopes to obtain more pieces before potentially exhibiting the returned artworks together.

"For it is everyone's duty to fight anti-Semitism, and all forms of discrimination, so that the legacy of Armand Isaac Dorville and so many others is not tarnished by oblivion or denial," he added.

Sophie Mallinson is a daily news intern with WUNC for summer 2023. She is a recent graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied journalism. Sophie is from Greenville, N.C., but she enjoys the new experiences of the Triangle area. During her time as a Tar Heel, Sophie was a reporter and producer for Carolina Connection, UNC-Chapel Hill’s radio program. She currently is heavily involved in science education at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.