Even before WWII ended, the conflict over art appropriated into Nazi hands has been waged. For decades, documents showing the party had legally bought many works at auction from Jewish sellers were allowed to stand, making the art the property of whoever took it from the Nazis – everyone from American veterans to the Russian government.
But proof keeps popping up that the Nazi party set up mock auctions, dummy buyers, and falsified paperwork to clean up the provenance of stolen works of art and finery.
French writer Pauline Baer de Perignon’s family has had, for years, a photograph of her great-grandfather Jules Strauss standing in front of his collection of portraits in his Paris home. The collection was a rich one, including paintings by Monet, Renoir, and Degas. Baer assumed the paintings were all gone through regrettable but legitimate channels, until she met her cousin Andrew Strauss at a concert in Paris. Over dinner, Andrew told Baer that the sale of their family’s collection in the early years of the war was “shady.” And he had evidence, including a dummy company, the names of several Nazi officers, and some strange museum inventories.
Baer spent three years tracking down the paintings from that photo, and proof to back up her cousin’s theories. Along the way, she also learned much about what happened to lost family members. Enough to write a book, The Vanished Collection, which is becoming popular in France as a non-fiction thriller.
So far, she’s had luck reclaiming only one of Jules Strauss’s portraits: Portrait of a Lady as Pomona, by the French artist Nicholas de Largilliere, 1710. She had sufficient proof that Strauss had sold it under duress to convince the Dresden state art collection to turn the painting over, though they did so reluctantly. The family will be auctioning the work off, likely straight back to Dresden, to fund further research. The stolen portrait is expected to sell for between $1 and $1.5 million.
Photo: Tonis Valing / Shutterstock