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New book by Beth Karlsgodt, DU History professor, examines National Treasures

Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt, assistant professor of History at the University of Denver (DU), examines the ethical dimensions of museum acquisitions in her new book Defending National Treasures: French Art and Heritage Under Vichy (Stanford University Press, 2011). In the book, Karlsgodt examines lasting preservation policies created during the Nazi occupation, as well as the effort by French curators to acquire works of art from Jewish collections for the Louvre and other museums.

“The French museum administration still promotes the idea that their predecessors during World War II protected art from seized collections in the interest of the Jewish owners,” says Karlsgodt. “But wartime correspondence in French archives tells a very different story. Prominent cultural figures who supported the Resistance also sought to acquire some of the art for the Louvre.”

            Karlsgodt’s introduction notes that Jacques Jaujard, director of French national museums from 1939 to 1944, was awarded the Resistance Medal for his work protecting French art collections during the war. Yet, she also reveals that Jaujard and Louvre curators negotiated deals with officials in the collaborationist Vichy Regime, pursuing acquisitions from Jewish collections that had eluded the Nazis.

            “Without denying the courageous acts that earned Jaujard his prestigious honors, I aim to provide a more complete picture of museum officials’ actions during the Occupation,” Karlsgodt says. She also coins the term ‘patrimania’ in which cultural and political figures succumb to opportunism to pursue cultural acquisitions – not for themselves, but for the institutions they serve. She sheds light on current cultural property disputes in various countries over antiquities and Nazi-era assets, examining the ethics of museum acquisitions.

In his review of the book Bertram Gordon, professor of History at Mills College says, “The book makes several critical arguments, including a strongly documented case for continuity in French cultural policy from the Third Republic through Vichy and the postwar years. Karlsgodt…raises important ethical questions about museum acquisitions policies, not only in Vichy France, but also in postwar France and elsewhere.”

Karlsgodt earned a doctorate in history from New York University and studied at several institutions in Paris, including the Institute of Political Studies and the Ecole normale supérieure. Her analysis stems from two years of archival research in France.


Note: Karlsgodt is fluent in French and willing to do interviews in French or English.

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