When the provenance of a painting is missing from the mid-1900s (c.1930-1945) it is important for the buyer (and seller) to do their due diligence — making sure there is no connection to Nazi-looted art. During World War II, the Nazi regime established the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg für die Besetzten Gebiete – The Reichsleiter Rosenberg Institute for the Occupied Territories) to seize Jewish collections and degenerate art, which included Cubism, Futurism, and Dadaism. The ERR, led by Hermann Göring, was then responsible for either selling, auctioning or publicly burning, the works. Yes, on March 20, 1939, almost 5000 ‘degenerate’ works were burned in the courtyard of the Berlin Fire Department.
Since the end of the war, restitution efforts have continued — finding the surviving/looted works and return them to their rightful owners (or heirs). Over the years we have all read many of these stories — the Gurlitt story is one of the more recent and complex.
Today there are firms like Mondex and the Art Loss Registry that aid in the recovery of looted/stolen art — for a piece of the action, of course. While more works than ever are being recovered and returned, there are still many that fall through the cracks. James Palmer, head of Mondex says: “Sophisticated buyers of art are realising that buying from an auction house presents significant risks and auction houses need to do much more to ensure that they are not selling stolen goods,”… “Buyers of art, at auctions, should insist that the auction house indemnify them in the event that a claim is ever made in the future. This would likely encourage auction houses to be far more accountable and therefore to stop selling stolen art.”
Now to the story at hand… In 2016, Mondex contacted the grandson of Alfred Lindon, a French collector whose entire collection was seized by Göring and the ERR, and informed him that they found one of his grandfather’s missing works. Fortunately, after the war, Lindon was able to recover many of the works that were seized; however, the whereabouts of Alfred Sisley’s Premier jour de Printemps à Moret (First day of spring in Moret), remained “unknown” until then. Turns out it was sold in a 2008 auction at Christie’s, New York, for $338,500. Alfred Lindon’s grandson, Denis, then filed a legal complaint to recover the work. (You can read our own story about tracking the missing provenance of a Sisley painting here.)
When Alain Dreyfus, a French art dealer with a gallery in Basel, Switzerland, and the current owner of the work was notified of the matter, he sent Christie’s a bill for $816,403.00; asking for a full refund plus an annual interest rate of 8%. “If you buy a car in a garage and the police come and tell you that it’s stolen you hand it back to the garage and get your money back. That’s normal,” he told the Telegraph. Christie’s have not paid Dreyfus, but argue that they followed protocol and at the time of the sale there was no evidence that led them to believe the work was looted. They went on to say “The matter is now between the current owner and the heirs and is now in a legal process. Christie’s stands by its position that we did our due diligence appropriately in 2008, at the time of sale.” We will keep you updated on this one.