Sunday 16 December 2018

On the trail of Nazi loot

Christie's sued for selling a painting which had been looted by the Nazis, writes Henry Samuel

Impressionist: ‘Premier Jour de Printemps a Moret’ by Alfred Sisley (1889)
Impressionist: ‘Premier Jour de Printemps a Moret’ by Alfred Sisley (1889)

Henry Samuel

Christie's is embroiled in a dispute over an Impressionist painting that it sold in good faith, but was looted by the Nazis and was even part of Hermann Goring's private collection.

The work's rightful owners and the dealer who bought the painting from Christie's have accused the auction house of failing properly to investigate its dark past, and then refusing to rescind the sale once its murky provenance became clear.

This week, the owner of Premier jour de printemps a Moret (First day of spring in Moret), painted by Alfred Sisley in 1889, is launching legal proceedings against the auction house.

"With Christie's, it's war," said Alain Dreyfus, a French dealer with a gallery in Basel, Switzerland. "They did not do enough research. If you buy a car in a garage and the police come and tell you that it's stolen you hand it back to the garage and get your money back. That's normal," he said.

He has said he will return the work to its rightful owners, but he wants Christie's to reimburse him. Last month, he sent a bill for €700,000 (£612,000) to Christie's Zurich branch, demanding to be repaid the value of the work plus 8pc interest.

Furious, he says, at receiving no response, he is taking up the "unpaid invoice" with Basel's prosecution office, has hired a PR manager to launch a campaign accusing Christie's of "selling stolen goods", and is suing the auctioneers in New York.

The work's rightful owners are heirs of French collector Alfred Lindon (born Abner Lindenbaum). When the Germans invaded Paris, he fled after placing the works in a Chase Bank safe, which the Nazis forced open in 1940. Goring, Adolf Hitler's right-hand man, requisitioned the entire collection of "the Jew Lindenbaum", including the Sisley. He later exchanged the Impressionist painting, along with 17 other works, for a Titian with a corrupt dealer.

After the war, Mr Lindon recovered most of the looted works, but not the Sisley. Yet none of this was common knowledge when Christie's New York sold Mr Dreyfus the work in 2008 for $357,000, along with a Renoir and Boudin. It was only in 2016 that Canada-based looted art experts Mondex contacted Lindon's heirs to inform them that they had positively identified the Sisley as coming from the family collection. They had found the painting in an inventory of artworks confiscated from Jewish people by Hitler's 'Special Task Force', and matched it to a photo from the Swiss gallery.

Lindon's grandson, Denis, filed a legal complaint to recover the work last August, telling a Paris court: "It is not serious to claim Christie's, which possesses a service specialised in research into looted art, could have ignored the origin of such a painting."

In a statement, Christie's said: "All the known provenances and accessible history about the painting at the date of its sale a decade ago were extensively researched and referenced in Christie's catalogue."

At the time of sale, it argued, there was "no active claim on the work and no discoverable information that would directly connect this specific work with the claimant family".

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