Pauline Baer de Perignon fought long and hard for the restitution of “Portrait of a Lady as Pomona,” painted by Nicolas de Largillière in 1714. The artwork once belonged to Baer de Perignon’s great-grandfather, the noted French art collector and patron Jules Strauss, who was forced by the Nazis to sell it for far less than its market value during the Holocaust.
After being held and displayed at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden in Germany since October 1959, the 66.5-inch-high (framed) portrait was finally delivered to Baer de Perignon’s Paris apartment in January 2021.
Baer de Perignon hung it in her home, but it has since been taken down and is to be auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York on January 27, with an estimated sale price of $1-1.5 million.
“I knew all along that the painting did not belong to me. Jules Strauss has 18 living heirs, and the painting is shared property. I couldn’t afford to buy the painting from the others,” Baer de Perignon explained in a recent interview with The Times of Israel.
Among the heirs is Baer de Perignon’s cousin Andrew Strauss, a professional art specialist who worked for many years at Sotheby’s. He mentioned offhandedly to Baer de Perignon in May 2014 that there was “something shady” about the sale of some of Jules Strauss’s art, and that he “had been robbed.”
Strauss’ remark launched Baer de Perignon on a years-long quest to understand exactly which of the approximately 500 artworks in the Frankfurt-born Jules Strauss’ collection were plundered, and what happened to them. The search, in turn, provided material for Baer de Perignon’s successful book, “The Vanished Collection.” It was published in French in 2020, and in English translation in January 2022.
Baer de Perignon, who had coauthored film scripts and taught writing workshops, had no relevant knowledge or skills to embark on such a journey, but she was undeterred.
“The truth was, I was making it all up as I went along. I started this research in a very unfocused way, looking at it from every possible angle. Really, my method was that I had no method,” Baer de Perignon writes in her book.
She followed every lead and received direction from various archivists, historians and specialists in restitution of Nazi-looted artworks. She, however, did all the painstaking research herself.
“[Baer de Perignon’s] story is unique as far as her undertaking a journey virtually on her own, instead of hiring someone, and with regard to the details of which she knew virtually nothing. She had little connection to art, but she educated herself on the process, from archival research to building a restitution case,” said Ori Soltes, Georgetown University professor and cofounding director of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project.
Key items of historical evidence discovered by Baer de Perignon were at the same helpful and confusing. For instance, information from auction catalogs sometimes conflicted with the list of looted artworks Jules’s wife Marie-Louise drew up after the war, and with Jules’s own notebooks listing every single piece of art the “compulsive buyer” ever acquired. (Baer de Perignon borrowed the latter from her cousin the late Michel Strauss, who headed Sotheby’s Modern and Impressionist art department for decades.)
Despite Baer de Perignon’s best efforts with her archival research and interviews of elderly relatives, she was unable to answer questions about how and why retired banker Jules and Marie-Louise managed to remain in Paris during the war, especially when their children and grandchildren fled to the zone libre (“free zone”) in the south, and when and so many Jews from the Strausses’ social and business circles were deported to concentration camps.
The Nazis even commandeered Jules and Marie-Louise’s apartment at Avenue Foch and forced them out, but Marie Louise was inexplicably able to return there after 1945 and live comfortably among many of her pre-war belongings. (Jules died of old age or natural causes in 1943.)
Most frustrating of all for the author was her discovery that museums are far from eager to relinquish artworks, even when presented with dossiers of solid evidence that they were looted.
She was stunned when the Dresden museum’s director suggested to her that her great-grandfather would have been “happy to have sold his painting for a decent price.”
“Museums are interested in the art’s provenance from an art history point of view, but they are not interested in giving it back to those it was stolen from. The burden of proof is on people like me, and it is psychologically exhausting,” Baer de Perignon said.
“There is a lot of waiting. The process is vague and not at all transparent. You feel powerless because of all the bureaucracy,” she said.
Baer de Perignon was also able to track down a drawing by the 18th-century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo that had been looted from Jules Strauss. It ended up in the Louvre’s collection after the war, and no one there had thought to look for its owner.
Baer de Perignon found this ironic and galling, given that Jules Strauss had been a generous patron of the Louvre. Not only had he donated four paintings to the museum, but he also instigated the Louvre’s new framing policy in 1900, which matched paintings with frames from the period in which they were painted. Strauss donated some sixty frames toward this project.
The drawing was restituted to the family at an April 2017 ceremony at France’s Ministry of Culture, and it has since been sold.
According to Lucian Simmons, Sotheby’s Worldwide Head of Restitution, the Nicolas de Largillière painting restituted to the Strauss heirs and up for auction on January 27 “is one of the most significant works by the artist ever offered at auction, and is comparable to other masterpieces by the artist completed around the same time.”
“The sitter of ‘Portrait of a Lady as Pomona’ has traditionally been identified as Marie Madeleine de La Vieuville, the Marquise de Parabère (1693-1755), who was the mistress of Philippe II, Duc d’Orléans while he was regent of France during the childhood reign of King Louis XV of France,” he added.
Although Sotheby’s research and due diligence process has helped lead to the restitution of hundreds of artworks in the last two decades since the establishment of its dedicated restitution department, the auction house became involved with this painting only after it had already been returned to its rightful owners.
Nonetheless, “it is critical to honor and reclaim the history of these [Jewish] collectors and share their stories so that they become an inextricable part of the works’ history and are not forgotten. Every newly restituted artwork is important since it represents the culmination of a journey for the artwork and the family concerned,” Simmons said.
Baer de Perignon described the long and challenging restitution process as “an identity quest.” It was more about her trying to understand her late father (who died when she was 20) than about the art itself.
“The book is really all about him, and what he didn’t tell me about my heritage. I am more sad about it than upset,” Baer de Perignon said.
Her father converted to Catholicism as a young man during the war, and never spoke about his Jewish past. Baer de Perignon had never known about Jules Strauss’s legendary reputation as an art collector alongside other French Jewish collectors like Charles Ephrussi and Moïse de Camondo.
“I have read about people rejecting the idea that they had been victims of spoliation… as a defense mechanism…Was it possible that we, Jules’s descendants, were suffering from this? Strauss means ostrich in German — had we actively decided to put our heads in the sand to avoid the truth?” the author writes.
While still identifying as Catholic, Baer de Perignon said this journey toward restitution has helped her identify what has trickled down from her Jewish ancestors.
“I relate to the way that Jews question things. I’ve always been that way,” she said.
Baer de Perignon said she was sad to see “Portrait of a Lady as Pomona” come down from her wall after such a struggle to get her there. But although she loved gazing at its beauty, she always kept her eye on what was most important.
“The painting is not about the painting itself. It’s about memory and justice,” she said.
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