It is the end of a painful epic: 77 years after the confiscation of the property of a Jewish collector during the Nazi occupation, the French justice on Wednesday definitively returned to his descendants a painting of Pissarro held by Americans, who had bought it legally at auction.
The Court of Cassation, the supreme judicial judge, has put an end to three years of proceedings between two families over The Picking of the Peas, a gouache with a path strewn with shady areas, painted in 1887 by the Impressionist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903).
On the one hand, the descendants of Simon Bauer, a French industrialist and art lover born in 1862, who was robbed of his works, including La cueillette, during the occupation of France by Nazi Germany (1940-1944) during the Second World War.
On the other hand, the Toll couple, major American collectors, who had acquired the painting for $800,000 at Christie’s in New York in 1995 and have always said they did not know its provenance.
The Bauer family had lost track of The Gathering until they found it on loan from the Toll family to the Parisian Marmottan-Monet Museum in early 2017 as part of a retrospective exhibition devoted to Pissarro.
She had then obtained her sequestration and summoned the Americans to recover it.
In 2017, and then on appeal in 2018, the French courts ordered the Toll family to return the gouache to the Bauers on the basis of an exceptional text: the ordinance of April 21, 1945 declaring spoliation null and void.
On Wednesday, the Court of Cassation rejected the Toll couple’s appeal, rendering the restitution final. The senior magistrates recalled that under the 1945 order, “subsequent purchasers” of property recognized as confiscated, “even in good faith, cannot claim to have become legal owners”.
Simon Bauer’s heirs, some twenty people, will now recover the painting, which they had left in escrow at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, pending a final decision.
In a statement, the Bauer family’s lawyer, Cédric Fischer, welcomed a “historic” decision that has restored his clients “to their legitimate rights.
This decision “gives an unquestionable legal basis to all the actions currently underway to restore to their legitimate owners works of art that were looted and illegally owned by amateurs who are trying to take advantage of their good faith,” he said.
Nothing has yet been decided within the family regarding the future of the painting, the lawyer said.
For their part, the American collectors intend to turn against the French state before the European Court of Human Rights, announced their lawyer, Ron Soffer.
The Toll “are not unhappy that the Bauer family can find the painting”, “they are unhappy because in the end they are the ones who have to pay for a crime committed by the Vichy regime”, Mr Soffer reacted.
“The original crime in this case was committed by Vichy,” insisted the lawyer, for whom “putting the weight of the spoliations on intermediaries is a regrettable decision that opens a judicial Pandora’s box.
“This painting arrived in France because Mr. and Mrs. Toll were willing to lend it in good faith for an exhibition at the Marmottan Museum,” he added.
The Gathering was one of 93 master paintings in the collection of Simon Bauer, who made his fortune in the shoe business.
In 1943, the collection had been confiscated from him and sold by an art dealer appointed by the Vichy regime’s Office of the Commissioner for Jewish Affairs, which collaborated with Nazi Germany.
Interned in July 1944 in Drancy, near Paris, Simon Bauer managed to escape deportation.
When he died in 1947, he had only managed to recover a small part of his works. But his descendants continued his efforts to regain possession of the collection.
La Cueillette had briefly resurfaced in 1965 at a sale, before disappearing again for half a century.