Court orders Nazi-looted Pissarro painting returned to Jewish family heirs

Lawyer hails ruling that ‘gives victims of the savagery committed by the Vichy government the right to recover their looted possessions, without a time limit’

'La Cueillette des pois' ('Picking Peas') by Camille Pissarro, painted in 1887. (Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)
'La Cueillette des pois' ('Picking Peas') by Camille Pissarro, painted in 1887. (Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

PARIS, France (AFP) — An American couple on Tuesday lost their bid to win back a painting by Impressionist master Camille Pissarro, as a French court confirmed it must be handed to the family of the Jewish collector it was looted from during World War II.

Wealthy art collectors Bruce and Robbi Toll had launched an appeal after a court ruled in November that the painting belonged by rights to the descendants of Simon Bauer, a Jewish businessman disappropriated by the Nazis in 1943.

The Tolls insisted they had no idea the painting, “La Cueillette” (“Picking Peas”), had been looted when they bought it at Christie’s in New York in 1995 for $800,000.

But the Paris appeals court ruled Tuesday that the original court decision stood, in a move hailed by the Bauer family.

The ruling “gives victims of the savagery committed by the Vichy government the right to recover their looted possessions, without a time limit,” their lawyer Cedric Fischer said in a statement.

Jean Jacques Bauer, who recovered a valuable Pissarro painting, reads the court decision prior to an interview with Associated Press, in Paris, November 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

The Vichy regime, France’s anti-Semitic wartime government which collaborated with the Nazis, seized 93 paintings from Bauer.

The wealthy businessman narrowly escaped death when a train drivers’ strike stopped him from being sent to a concentration camp.

Bauer recovered a few of his paintings after the war, but never La Cueillette, which Pissarro had painted in gouache in 1887.

‘Bought in good faith’

The verdict paves the way for the Bauer family to retrieve the painting, which during the court case has been kept locked up by the Musee d’Orsay and Orangerie museums.

The ruling mirrors other legal disputes over art and property looted from Jewish owners by the Nazis which were subsequently sold on to often unsuspecting new owners.

Out of 650,000 pieces of art stolen by the Nazis, about 100,000 had not been returned by 2009, according to figures released at the Holocaust Era Assets Conference held in the Czech Republic that year.

Bauer died in 1947, two years after the end of World War II.

His family spotted an opportunity to get the Pissarro painting back when it went on display at the Marmottan museum in Paris last year during a retrospective of the artist’s work.

A combination of photos released by prosecutors in Augsburg, Germany on November 12, 2013, show five of the more than 1,500 paintings believed looted by the Nazis, seized from a Munich flat of Cornelius Gurlitt. ( prosecutors/AFP/File)

They argued in court that the Tolls, experienced collectors who made their fortune in real estate, must have known the painting was on a list of looted artworks.

But the court accepted the argument that the Tolls, who are patrons of the Washington and Tel Aviv Holocaust museums, bought it in good faith.

“It is not Mr Toll, who bought this painting at public auction in 1995, who should pay for the crimes of Vichy,” their lawyer Ron Soffer had told AFP in November.

A government decree announced Tuesday that France would boost the powers of the commission which awards compensation to victims of Nazi looting.

The move, promised by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe over the summer, means the Commission for Compensating Looting Victims (CIVS) will now be able to launch an investigation on an individual’s request and recommend appropriate compensation.

The home of Cornelius Gurlitt in Salzburg, Austria, November 18, 2013. (photo credit: AFP Wildbild)

This includes artworks that have made their way into public collections or national museums, according to the decree published in the national gazette.

In 2011 a raid on a rubbish-strewn flat in Munich uncovered hundreds of priceless paintings, including works by Picasso and Matisse, that had been stolen by the Nazis.

The flat belonged to Cornelius Gurlitt, an octogenarian whose father was one of four art dealers tasked by the Nazis with selling the art.

An additional 239 works were found at a house he owned in Salzburg, Austria.

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