Nazi Looted Art Finally Returned to Heir; Painting Auctioned Off at Sotheby’s in NYC - The Jewish Voice
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Nazi Looted Art Finally Returned to Heir; Painting Auctioned Off at Sotheby’s in NYC

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As the subject of Nazi looted art continues to dominate the headlines, on this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a story of victory over thievery and contempt for Jews comes to light.

According to a report in the New York Post, a woman from Paris named Pauline Baer de Perignon, 48, had made a shocking discovery about the collection of works belonging to her art collector great-grandfather, Jules Strauss.

Her great-grandfather was a German Jew living in Paris in the late 1800s. It was there that began to collect Dutch and Flemish masters, as well as 18th-century French painters like Watteau, according to the Post report. He also owned a vast array of impressionist paintings done by the likes of such icons in the world of art as Paul Renoir, Edgar Degas, and Claude Money, along with many others.

Baer de Perignon had been told that due to the stock market crash of the 1930s, Strauss was compelled to sell off his collection of artwork. As such, he was unable to leave anything to his heirs. The Post reported that Strauss was born in Frankfurt, Germany to a prominent banking family in 1861 and moved to Paris in 1880 to work as a foreign-exchange broker. Strauss quit his job after World War I and dedicated his time to collecting art on a full-time basis.

Jules and Marie-Louise Strauss (Courtesy of Pauline Baer de Perignon)

Such was his love of fine art that Strauss’ growing collection took up every inch of the apartment he lived in with this wife and three children. In 1940, France surrendered to Germany and the Nazis then requisitioned Strauss’ apartment.

The Post reported that in 1942, the German task force charged with expropriating large Jewish art collections, (known as the ERR), seized a storage unit that belonged to the Strausses, consisting of 69 crates filled with furniture and paintings.

While Strauss and his wife Marie-Louise and his three children were not deported to a concentration camp by the Nazis, they did end up converting to Catholicism in a desperate attempt to avoid persecution as Jews, according to the Post report.

As for Strauss’ great-granddaughter, Baer De Perignon, she had accepted the narrative of what happened to her great-grandfather’s art collection until 2014. The Post reported that when she ren into an art dealer cousin of hers at concert, the cousin inquired of her: “Did you know there was something shady about the Strauss sale? … I think Jules was robbed.”

She told the Post that she was in shock upon hearing this revelation. She said the question posed to her was like “hearing so much information that your brain stops working properly because it’s just so big.”

The Post reported on Thursday that one of Strauss’ paintings, “Portrait of a Lady as Pomona,” by classical painter Nicolas de Largillière, was auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York City. This was part of a quest that took years in the making by Baer De Perignon to prove that the painting was stolen by the Nazis.

Speaking to the Post of her five-year battle to convince the government of Germany to return the painting Baer de Perignon said, “There were times where I wanted to give up, but I knew it was important … It was a matter of memory, of justice, of identity.”

In her new memoir, “The Vanished Collection” (New Vessel Press), Baer de Perignon documents her experience of trying to get the painting returned. The Post reported that the Largillière painting, which depicts the famed Marquise de Parabère — a favorite lover of Philippe II of France — as Pomona, goddess of fruit and abundance, and was expected to fetch between $1 million and $1.5 million at the Sotheby’s auction.

In 2016, while searching a list of claims made to the French Looted Art Commission at the Looted Art Archives outside of Paris, Baer de Perignon spotted the name “Madame Jules Strauss,” according to the Post report. It was then that she discovered a dossier for a restitution claim filed by Marie-Louise back in 1945.

De Perignon told the Post: “When I saw the file with the handwriting of my great-grandmother — that’s when I knew that she had been looted, that something happened.” It made me shiver.”

She also told the Post that she set out to learn everything she could about her great-grandfather, and to piece together his lost collection, scouring auction records, interviewing historians and visiting archives in France, England and Germany.

The Post reported that Baer de Perignon eventually came across Largillière’s “Portrait of a Lady as Pomona” on a website called German Lost Art Foundation. It had ended up in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen museum in Dresden in 1959, where it had hung for six decades.

She told the Post: “I said, ‘Okay, the museum knows it’s looted. I was a bit naive. … That was the beginning of years of conversations where I had to prove all that time that it belonged to my great-grandfather and it had been taken.”

The museum refused to relinquish the painting, saying that the situation was “complicated” even after the results of an investigation concluded that Strauss’ sale was a forced one. The museum then offered to but the painting in 2018 from the family.

The Post reported that in her book, de Perignon writes: “This was a second forced sale: a restitution that was conditional on us agreeing to sell the painting to the museum. When they spoke of ‘complicated’ circumstances, and forced us to agree to sell back the painting, was this not, in a way, denying that it had been stolen — and thus negating Jules’s history?”

After retaining legal counsel and years of protracted proceedings, de Perignon said the museum relented and, in January 2021, a truck arrived at her Paris apartment with the painting. She had won.

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