French court to rule on Nazi-era looted Pissarro painting
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French court to rule on Nazi-era looted Pissarro painting

American owners, patrons of Washington and Tel Aviv Holocaust museums, say they didn’t know it was seized from a Jewish collector

'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) — A French court will rule Tuesday on an American couple’s appeal against an order to hand over a painting they bought which had been looted from a Jewish collector during World War II.

Bruce and Robbi Toll, wealthy art collectors, bought the painting “La Cueillette” (“Picking Peas”) by Impressionist master Camille Pissarro in 1995.

They say they did not know it had been seized from Jewish collector Simon Bauer in 1943 by the anti-Semitic wartime French government which collaborated with the Nazis.

But in November, a French court ruled that Bauer’s descendants were the rightful owners of the painting, which the Tolls bought at Christie’s in New York for $800,000.

The verdict 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.

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)

Bauer was dispossessed of 93 paintings in 1943 by the anti-Semitic wartime French government.

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’

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.

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 couple, who are patrons of the Washington and Tel Aviv Holocaust museums, insisted they had no idea it had been seized from Bauer.

The court accepted their argument that they 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 told AFP in November, referring to France’s puppet regime under the Nazis.

Ahead of Tuesday’s appeal ruling the painting has been kept locked up by the Musee d’Orsay and Orangerie museums.

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.

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

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.

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. (Lostart.de/Augsburg prosecutors/AFP/File)

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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