A Nazi-looted painting by the Dutch Old Master Adriaen van der Werff looks to be on its way back to the heirs of its World War II-era owner after a French court ordered Christie’s London to restitute the The Penitent Magdalene (1707), which it sold in 2005 for £60,000 ($115,185).
Before the Nazis came to power, the oil-on-panel painting belonged to art collector Lionel Hauser, a banker in Paris—and cousin to Marcel Proust. In 1945, Hauser reported that the Nazis had seized his 40-work art collection, including The Penitent Magdalene, from his home on October 23, 1942.
The French government included photographs of the stolen artwork in the Répertoire des biens spoliés listing property looted during the war, but that somehow slipped by Christie’s ahead of the 2005 sale, which did not include a provenance history for the painting.
Fast forward to 2017, when the current owner, an anonymous British collector, approached Christie’s about putting the painting up for sale yet again. This time, the auction house traced the work to Hauser, and a representative from Christie’s legal department reached out to his heirs to inform them of the looted work’s whereabouts.
“Christie’s is pleased to have identified concern over this painting’s provenance and to have informed the Hauser heirs, allowing them the possibility to claim the work,” a representative of the auction house told Artnet News in an email. “Christie’s, facilitating discussions between the parties, had offered to restitute the painting to the heirs of the Hauser Family and regrets that this was not possible by earlier amicable resolution.”
Christie’s had offered to split the proceeds of the work’s sale—minus its fees—between the heirs and the current owner, estimating its value at £30,000 to £50,000 ($37,000 to $61,000) in 2019. But the auction house refused to return the work outright, citing the statute of limitations under U.K. law, since more than six years had passed since the 2005 sale.
In June 2022, the heirs sued in French court, seeking the painting’s return.
“The discussions between Christie’s London and my clients were not successful because my clients did not consider Christie’s London proposals satisfactory,” the heirs’ lawyer Charlotte Caron told ARTnews.
In an email to Artnet News, Caron added of the Hauser heirs: “Restitution has essentially a symbolic value for them, more than any economic offer. We think that voluntary auctioneers should not continue to seek to make profits on artworks with such histories.”
The Paris civil court rejected the auction house’s argument that France did not have jurisdiction in the case because the painting and its current owner were both in London.
Christie’s must now return the painting, with a €500 ($545) daily fine for any delays. The court also ordered the auction house to identify the current owner, and to pay the heirs €10,000 ($10,900).
Whether or not the auction house will appeal the most recent ruling remains to be seen, but a spokesperson told Artnet News that “Christie’s looks now forward to finalizing this matter with the heirs of the Hauser family.”
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