French court to rule on Nazi-looted Pissarro painting

Descendants of original owner of ‘La Cueillette des Pois’ say current owners should have known picture was on list of stolen artworks

'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 who really owns a painting of women picking peas by Impressionist master Camille Pissarro, more than 70 years after it was seized from a Jewish art collector.

The dispute began earlier this year when the painting, “La Cueillette des Pois,” went on display in Paris during a retrospective of Pissarro’s work, alerting family members of the original owner, Simon Bauer.

Bauer, a wealthy businessman with a sizable art collection in 1943, was dispossessed by the anti-Semitic wartime French government which collaborated with the Nazis.

After narrowly escaping death when a train drivers’ strike stopped him from being sent to an extermination camp, Bauer recovered some of his collection after the war and received compensation — but never La Cueillette.

In early 2017, his descendants spotted an opportunity when the painting was lent to the Marmottan museum in Paris by Americans Bruce and Robbi Toll, who had bought it in 1995 for $800,000 (€690,000 at current exchange rates).

They launched legal action and in May a court granted their request to have it impounded pending a ruling on its on ownership.

The verdict mirrors other legal disputes around art and property looted from Jewish owners by the Nazis which has subsequently been sold on to — sometimes — unsuspecting new owners.

Out of 650,000 stolen pieces, 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.

Experienced buyers?

The Tolls, who made their fortune in real estate and are patrons of the Washington and Tel Aviv Holocaust museums, bought the work at Christie’s auction house in New York and argue that they did so 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,” the couple’s lawyer Ron Soffer told AFP, referring to France’s puppet regime under the Nazis.

The Tolls have also argued that the verdict will have repercussions for other exhibitions in France because foreign collectors will be wary of lending items because of the risk of legal action.

Bauer’s descendants have attempted to show that legal precedence is on their side and that the Tolls, experienced art collectors, would have known that the painting was on a list of looted artworks when they purchased it.

Bauer’s grandson, 87-year-old Jean-Jacques Bauer, described in court his family’s suffering from the wartime persecution which left Bauer financially, physically and morally broken.

Bauer died in 1947, two years after the end of the conflict.

The Bauer family’s lawyers have argued that since 1945 French courts have routinely annulled the sales of works that were part of their collection and ordered them to be returned.

In one of the biggest cases involving Nazi-stolen art, five masterpieces by Gustav Klimt were returned in 2006 to the descendant of the Jewish family from which they were taken after a legal battle with Austria’s Belvedere Museum.

In 2011 a raid on a rubbish-strewn flat in Munich as part of a tax investigation 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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