Auction houses play key role in returning war spoils

Thomas URBAIN – 
World War II ended more than 70 years ago, but works of art confiscated by the Nazis are still regularly unearthed by major auction houses, which contribute actively to their restitution.
French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Esquisse de paysage (Deux femmes dans le jardin des Collettes a Cagnes),” which depicts two women in a garden, changed hands no less than seven times since German police seized it in September 1941. Four of those times were at public auction.
But it wasn’t until 2013, when the painting was being considered for a sale at Christie’s in New York and the auction house flagged it as suspicious, that a descendant of the original owner was located and ultimately had the work returned.
The auction house traced the work’s ownership back to Alfred Weinberger, who had stored his art collection in a bank vault when he fled Paris at the war’s outset.
Federal prosecutors and the FBI returned the painting — created in 1919, the same year Renoir died — to Weinberger’s granddaughter Sylvie Sulitzer in September at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.
A combination of factors over the past 20 years — political, technological and generational — have facilitated the return of stolen pieces. “Interest in the Nazi era spoliation of art only really became of international interest in the mid-nineties,” Christie’s international restitution director Monica Dugot said.
After years of inertia, 44 countries agreed in 1998 to the Washington Principles to find and, if possible, return works stolen by the Nazis.
The declassification of numerous documents, the rise of the Internet and digitalisation have all given access to exhaustive and essential information for museums, art dealers and auction houses.
The Art Loss Register and the ERR database of art objects plundered by the Nazis, based on archives kept by the far-right political party, are the most exhaustive repositories of information — but dozens of other resources exist.
Major auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s have also adapted and formed dedicated teams since the late 1990s.
“They play a very major role,” said Wesley Fisher, research director for the Claims Conference, a group created in 1951 whose tasks include working to return stolen possessions. — AFP