Art looted by Nazis continues to surface at auction
Impressionist painting of Paris to be sold - seven decades after its owner died in Auschwitz
Boulevard Montmartre, Matinée de Printemps, by Camille Pissarro (est. €12 million) at Sotheby’s.
The industrial-scale looting of art by the Nazis continues to haunt the international art market. Last year, the authorities in Bavaria revealed that hundreds of valuable paintings had been discovered in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt (80), the son of a 1930s Nazi regime-approved art dealer, Hildebrand Gurlitt.
The German government has appointed a task force of experts to assess the collection and trace the rightful owners, a job which may take years to complete.
The moral, cultural, legal and financial stakes are high as the outcome will determine the ownership of art worth, potentially, several hundred million euro. But the Gurlitt collection represents just a fraction of history’s biggest art theft that was masterminded by Hitler’s Third Reich.
During the 1930s and early 1940s, countless works of art were seized – from museums and particularly from private Jewish collectors in Germany and in Nazi-occupied countries. Often, paintings were “acquired” at forced auctions, known as Jewish auctions, where Jews were compelled by the Nazis to “sell” paintings at preposterously low valuations.
Much of the stolen art was found and recovered by a specialist unit sent by the Allied forces to Gemany during the concluding months of the second World War. The work of the unit, informally known as the monuments men, is the subject of a forthcoming Hollywood film, The Monuments Men, directed by and starring George Clooney.
Returning the art to its rightful owners continues to be highly problematic. Many of the original owners had been murdered in concentration camps. Records were lost, incomplete or non-existent. Some of the art recovered ended up in various national galleries; some had already vanished into private collections. But, in recent years, there has been considerable progress in identifying and returning paintings to the heirs of the original owners in a process known as restitution.
The latest “restituted” painting to appear on the market is Boulevard Montmartre, Matinée de Printemps, a depiction of Paris in the spring of 1897, by the French painter Camille Pissarro.
The painting was originally owned by Max Silberberg, a German Jewish industrialist whose renowned art collection, one of the best in pre-war Germany, was seized by the Nazis and sold in a series of forced auctions before he and his wife Johanna were deported, initially to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz where they died in the Holocaust. But Max Silberberg’s son Alfred and his wife Greta managed to escape to England. Alfred Silberberg died in 1984 but his widow Greta took up the search for the artworks that had belonged to her father-in-law.
In 1999, she became the first British relative of a Holocaust victim to recover a work of Nazi-looted art, a Van Gogh drawing worth more than €6 million.
After further extensive research, a year later she was granted restitution of Boulevard Montmartre, Matinée de Printemps by the Museum of Israel in Jerusalem, where it had been donated.
Greta Silberberg died in England last year and the painting is now being sold by her estate. Sotheby’s described it as “one of the greatest Impressionist paintings to come to auction in many years” and has assigned it a top estimate of €12 million ahead of the auction in London on February 5th.