One of my favorite museums in Paris is the Musée Nissim de Camondo. Moïse de Camondo built his sumptuous home during the height of the Belle Époque in the early 20th century as a showcase for an impressive collection of art, furniture, and decorative objects. His architect modeled the family home on the Parc Monceau after the Petit Trianon in Versailles. I never visit here without fantasizing about being able to call this gem my home. From the stunning entryway staircase, to the wood-paneled library, to the porcelain room, delights abound. Many of the objects inside were literally fit for kings and queens – the silver-service was created for Catherine II of Russia and some of the furniture had been made for Marie Antoinette. There are portraits are by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the queen’s official painter. The perfectly preserved kitchens and butler’s area also give a glimpse of life on the other side of the glitz.
The history of the house is as tragic as the setting is sumptuous, however. Moïse de Camondo, a Sephardic Jew, was head of one of the most important banks in the Ottoman Empire. He moved to Paris and established the bank there in 1869 in order to escape anti-Semitism. His plan was to give the house to his son, Nissim. When Nissim died serving as a fighter pilot in World War I, his devastated father gave the house and its contents to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The museum opened in 1935, shortly after the death of its benefactor. During World War II, his daughter Béatrice, her husband, and their two children all perished in concentration camps, totally wiping out the rest of the family.
Today’s expression, ce n’est pas un cadeau (suh neh pahz un kado) means “it’s not a gift.” It’s used to describe something or someone that’s difficult to tolerate. It always amazes me to think that the Nazis respected The Hague treaties that protected museums and their contents from plunder during times of war, while having a total disregard for the value of human life. Had the home still been in the control of the family during the war, it would, no doubt, have been stripped bare. By making a gift of his home, Moïse de Camondo preserved it for generations to enjoy.