Imagine standing in the grandeur of the National Gallery, looking at a multi-million-pound Monet on the wall that should be your inheritance. Having your bike nicked and spotting it a week later on eBay would probably be a real pain to prove ownership of (I always enjoy those vigilante stories of prospective buyers showing up and stealing their property back) but nothing compared to the nightmare of trying to provide a paper trail across decades and continents.
This is what Pauline Baer de Perignon was faced with when her cousin mentioned in a strangely casual fashion, that he thought their great-grandfather’s art collection had been stolen by the Nazis – not voluntarily sold at auction as had been thought.
In The Vanished Collection, Baer de Perignon tells the complicated tale of piecing together the provenance for a couple of the stolen paintings, and although she places herself as the main character, the search involves an entire ensemble cast who make a lot of the significant discoveries. It demonstrates how difficult it must be to make a claim for a painting’s restitution, with Baer de Perignon being almost entirely reliant on her family’s art connections to gain access to archives and to direct her at each crossroads on her journey.
I knew full well I’d never truly know Jules, that however hard I studied the photograph of his face, I would never uncover all his secrets.The Vanished Collection
With the family art connections in mind, the thing that surprises in this story is that although auction catalogues sat on the family bookshelves, Baer de Perignon had seemingly had no interest whatsoever in her family’s past, accepting the easy to digest story that her ancestors had a lucky escape from the Nazis – a reminder that for so many the horrors of the Holocaust were not spoken of. Also a reminder, as she rushes to find out what she can from elderly relatives, that if we don’t take the time to talk to our elders about the past, there will come a point where it is too late to ask.
It is interesting to see Baer de Perignon’s obsession with finding the paintings grow, as she does what we probably all do sometimes – try to imagine our ancestors living and breathing with nothing more than a faded photograph or inherited object to draw upon.
What has become of the beautiful days of yesteryear, the quays of the Seine, and the nightingales? Shall we ever know them again?Jules Strauss, 1940
The biggest takeaway from The Vanished Collection is the shocking unwillingness of museums to facilitate restitution. We’re all familiar with the fight for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, but where as we can see how losing them would be viewed by the British Museum as a major loss to their collection, some of these looted paintings are being held in gallery storerooms, not even deemed important enough to be on public show.
How had my great-grandfather’s painting ended up on display in Dresden for over twenty years, without anyone ever really trying to find out whom it belonged to?The Vanished Collection
With so many legal cases still in progress and discoveries still being made, not to mention Nazi looted art’s place in the wider conversation about cultural looting, the story that The Vanished Collection tells is still a relevant one. Cultural heritage remains a target in war. Cultural sites across Syria and Iraq have been damaged, looted and destroyed by ISIS over the last decade. Even more recently, at time of print, news reports stated that over 2,00 works of art had been stolen by Russian Forces from the Ukranian city of Mariupol.
The Vanished Collection
Pauline Baer de Perignon
Translated from French by Natasha Lehrer
Published by Apollo, 2022
Hardback, 256 pages
We took a look at a couple of other cases where there was a struggle for restitution.
Vase of flowers
Title: Vase of flowers
Artist: Jan van Huysum
Year: Early 18th C
|1824||VoF purchased by Grand Duke Leopold II for Palazzo Pitti, Florence|
|1940||Palazzo Pitti evacuate their collection in wooden creates to Medicean|
Villa of Poggio a Caino for safe keeping
|1943||The collection is moved to Bossi Pucci Villa in Florence|
|1943||Collection is found by Wehrmacht whilst retreating, is taken to Castel|
Giovio in Bolzano in preparation for shipping to Germany
|1944-07||A Lance Corporal involved in the convoy sends VoF as a gift to his|
wife in Halle an der Saale, Germany
|1945-05||The Monuments Men discover both German repositories but 10|
paintings (including VoF) are missing.
|1989-11||A German family seek information on its authenticity and value from|
the Bavarian State Picture Gallery
|1991||Over a number of years, the family make multiple attempts to sell VoF|
back to Italy, threatening to destroy it unless their ransom is paid.
|2016||Florence initiates an investigation into attempted extortion|
|2019-01||Palazzo Pitti make a public appeal for the restitution of VoF|
|2019-07-19||Returned to Palazzo Pitti|
In 1963, seven of the ten missing paintings were found in two separate discoveries – both in the possession of former Wehrmacht soldiers who had been part of the 1944 convoy. Vase of Flowers was the eighth find, leaving two still missing.
For the public appeal, Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi (of which Palazzo Pitti is part of) went as far as to display a copy of the painting with the word ‘stolen’ across it in Italian, German and Spanish.
Rue Saint-Honore, apre-midi. Effet de Pluie
Title: Rue Saint-Honore, apre-midi. Effet de Pluie
Artist: Camille Pissarro
|1898||Pissarro sells RS-H to his primary dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel|
|1900-04-11||Agent sells RS-H to Paul Cassirer|
|1926||RS-H Inherited by daughter-in-law Lilly Cassirer Neubauer|
|1939||a. Forced to transfer RS-H to Jakob Scheidwimmer in order to obtain exit visas to flee Germany|
|b. Scheidwimmer forces sale of three German paintings in exchange for|
RS-H to Julius Sulzbacher, who in turn loses them when –
|c. RS-H confiscated by the Gestapo|
|1943||Sold at Lange Auction in Berlin|
|1951-07-18||Frank Perls Gallery of Beverly Hills arrange sale of painting on behalf of Herr Urban of Munich to art collector Sidney Brody|
|1952-05||Knoedler Gallery, NY, arranges sale on behalf of Brody to Sydney Schoenberg of St Louis, Missouri|
|1976-10-27||Stephen Hahn Gallery, NY, arranges sale on behalf of Schoenberg|
to Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza of Lugano, Switzerland
|1976- 1992||Painting publicly exhibited across the world, including Australia, Japan, London, Italy, Germany and Paris|
|1993-06-21||Kingdom of Spain purchases Baron’s collection, RS-H is displayed in|
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
|1999||Claude Cassirer (grandson) attempts to recover work|
|2022-04-21||After 21 years of legal battles, the Cassirer family’s fight continues, with the US Supreme Court ruling the case can be tried in California for a second time.|
T-B’s refusal to return the painting stems from Spain’s laws of acquisitive prescription – they did not know the painting to be stolen and have held it for more than 6 years. The US Supreme Court concluded that T-B’s “actual knowledge” could not be proved, even though the minimal provenance provided, along with intentionally removed labels and a partial label for the Cassirer’s Berlin gallery, should have raised their suspicions.
To take a further look at the debate on the wrongs and rights of restitution, please click here.