Issue: CC106
24th May 2022

Finders keepers?

When it comes to art the war is not over

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.

Portrait of a lady as Pomona, Nicolas de Largillière

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
ISBN: 9781803280905
RRP: £20.00

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


1824VoF purchased by Grand Duke Leopold II for Palazzo Pitti, Florence
1940Palazzo Pitti evacuate their collection in wooden creates to Medicean
Villa of Poggio a Caino for safe keeping
1943The collection is moved to Bossi Pucci Villa in Florence
1943Collection is found by Wehrmacht whilst retreating, is taken to Castel
Giovio in Bolzano in preparation for shipping to Germany
1944-07A Lance Corporal involved in the convoy sends VoF as a gift to his
wife in Halle an der Saale, Germany
1945-05The Monuments Men discover both German repositories but 10
paintings (including VoF) are missing.
1989-11A German family seek information on its authenticity and value from
the Bavarian State Picture Gallery
1991Over a number of years, the family make multiple attempts to sell VoF
back to Italy, threatening to destroy it unless their ransom is paid.
2016Florence initiates an investigation into attempted extortion
2019-01Palazzo Pitti make a public appeal for the restitution of VoF
2019-07-19Returned 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.

Status: Returned

Rue Saint-Honore, apre-midi. Effet de Pluie

Title: Rue Saint-Honore, apre-midi. Effet de Pluie
Artist: Camille Pissarro
Year: 1897


1898Pissarro sells RS-H to his primary dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel
1900-04-11Agent sells RS-H to Paul Cassirer
1926RS-H Inherited by daughter-in-law Lilly Cassirer Neubauer
1939a. 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
1943Sold at Lange Auction in Berlin
1951-07-18Frank Perls Gallery of Beverly Hills arrange sale of painting on behalf of Herr Urban of Munich to art collector Sidney Brody
1952-05Knoedler Gallery, NY, arranges sale on behalf of Brody to Sydney  Schoenberg of St Louis, Missouri
1976-10-27Stephen Hahn Gallery, NY, arranges sale on behalf of Schoenberg
to Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza of Lugano, Switzerland
1976- 1992Painting publicly exhibited across the world, including Australia, Japan, London, Italy, Germany and Paris
1993-06-21Kingdom of Spain purchases Baron’s collection, RS-H is displayed in
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
1999Claude Cassirer (grandson) attempts to recover work
2022-04-21After 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.

The Pissarro, hanging in Lilly’s living room

Status: Stolen

To take a further look at the debate on the wrongs and rights of restitution, please click here.