Pissarro painting stolen during Nazi occupation to be returned, 77 years on

By Ollia Horton with RFI
Europe  Wikipedia - public domain
JUL 2, 2020 LISTEN
© Wikipedia - public domain

A French court has ruled that a work by Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro is to be returned to its original owners, a Jewish family of art collectors, 77 years after the painting was confiscated during the Nazi occupation of France.

The decision ends over 70 years of legal wrangling for the descendants of Simon Bauer, a Jewish businessman and amateur art collector who died in 1947.

American collectors Bruce and Robbi Toll have always maintained they had no idea Picking peas, painted in 1887, had been looted when they bought Pissarro's work for 800,000 dollars through an auction at Christie's in New York in 1995.

France's highest court on Wednesday upheld a 2018 ruling ordering the restitution of the painting to its original owners, the Bauer family.

The decision was based on a decree written on 21 April 1945, stating that ownership of items acquired through looting would not be recognised.

Lawyers for the family pointed out that, even if the new owners had no idea that the painting had been stolen, they could not pretend to be the legal owners.

"They are being punished for crimes committed by the Vichy regime," the Tolls' lawyer Ron Soffer told the press, referring to the branch of the French government which collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War.

Setting a legal precedent

In a statement, the Bauer family's lawyer, Cédric Fischer, commended the decision, calling it "historic".

"This decision provides a strong legal base for all the other similar cases where stolen works are being illegally held by amateurs who pretend not to know," he said.

Picking peas had been spotted only once at a sale in 1965 before disappearing again for half a century.

It was during a Pissarro retrospective at the Marmottan-Monet Museum in Paris in 2017 that the Bauer family came across the painting, on loan from the Tolls.

The Bauers took legal action at that time to have the work put into storage at the Musée d'Orsay where it has been since then.

Opening Pandora's Box

For their part, the American collectors are disappointed with the verdict, and have said they will take the French government to the European Court of Human Rights.

"The Tolls are not displeased that the Bauer family can get their painting back," said Soffer.

"However, they are unhappy that in the end, they are being punished for a crime committed by the Vichy regime," underlining that it is regrettable that intermediate owners have to take responsibility.

"This is a judicial Pandora's Box," he said, emphasising that the Tolls had loaned the painting to the Marmottan Museum in good faith.

93 works stolen
Picking peas is one of 93 paintings in Simon Bauer's collection, confiscated in 1943 and sold by a dealer nominated by the police department in charge of Jewish affairs under the Vichy regime.

Imprisoned with other Jews in July 1944 in Drancy, north east of Paris, Simon Bauer managed to escape deportation.

By his death in 1947, he had recovered only a small number of stolen artworks and left his descendants to continue the fight to have the collection returned.

The 20 or so heirs to Simon Bauer say they have not yet decided what they will do with the artwork.