New evidence that the Nazis staged bogus auctions and fake papers to cover up their looting of art and valuable goods has been uncovered by an amateur sleuth looking for his own family mystery.
French writer Pauline Baer de Pérignon’s investigation revealed the fate of a missing art collection that included works by Monet, Renoir and Degas and also revealed the reluctance of major European museums to accept evidence of the deception.
Baer was prompted to reflect on the past when she ran into an English cousin who told her he believed the family had been “stolen”.
“It all changed my life,” Baer said over the weekend. “I had to come back to a long forgotten family story as well as the hidden secrets of the Gestapo. And then I had to confront the truth about the paintings held by galleries such as the Louvre and the State Museum in Dresden. I was so naive when I started.
Baer’s three years of research not only shed new light on how important works of art were systematically stolen after Germany’s invasion of France, but will culminate later this month with the sale. highly publicized of a painting recovered at Sotheby’s in New York.
Portrait of a Lady as Pomona, by revered 18th-century French artist Nicolas de Largillière, belonged to his great-grandfather, the Parisian collector Jules Strauss, and was only returned to his descendants last year. It is now expected to sell for $ 1million to $ 1.5million (£ 750,000 to £ 1.1million). “I could have asked my father to tell me about Jules Strauss, but I never did,” Baer said. “My father died when I was 20, before I had the courage to ask him questions about the war, about his parents and grandparents, about his emotions and his memories.”
Baer’s curiosity was aroused when she ran into her cousin Andrew Strauss at a concert in Paris eight years ago. The two hadn’t met since she was a teenager, but he told her he worked at Sotheby’s and thought the apparent sale of the Strauss collection in the early 1940s was ‘shady’. He mentioned the involvement of bogus companies, Nazi officers and museum inventories to his puzzled cousin. “Andrew’s words sent my mind into a rabbit hole,” Baer said.
Armed with a scribbled note listing the names of famous artists, Baer began to piece together the lost past. She was now as interested in finding out what had happened to her distant family members as the fate of the Gone Art. A book about his efforts, The missing collection, has already made waves in France, where it was published last year and where critics have compared it to a gripping thriller. A review for She said it was as “devorable as a thriller,” while others have compared the family history to that of other famous Jewish families whose art was looted during the war, such as the Camondos, the Rothschilds and the Ephrussians.
At the start of Baer’s investigations, all she had was a photograph of Strauss, her illustrious great-grandfather, and another of the many portraits hanging on the walls of her old house on Avenue Foch in Paris. She knew the apartment was gone, but that there was an elderly relative living with firsthand knowledge of what had happened.
She searches the archives of major museums and asks difficult questions to the French Ministry of Culture. She was surprised to find out how the thefts had been covered up, but her English translator, Natasha Lehrer, thinks the most powerful part of the book is about how modern art institutions dragged their feet and, at worst, avoided doubts about the ownership of important paintings. .
“What Pauline stumbled upon was an apparent reluctance among those who ran various large state museums to admit that they held looted works of art until very recently,” Lehrer said. “This despite the fact that families and collectors often had all the provenance information to identify them as legitimate owners. There has been a noticeable reluctance to return works of art. The English version of Baer’s book is due out next month by Head of Zeus.
Baer found Largillière’s portrait in the Dresden state art collections and found archival evidence to prove that Strauss was forced to sell it. The masterpiece had apparently been acquired in 1941 for the Reichsbank in Berlin and then transferred to the Ministry of Finance, before going to Dresden in 1959. Baer found the words “Jules Strauss Collection” next to Largillière’s list in the German Lost Art Foundation, but was then told that the director of the Dresden museum was unwilling to return it. He was asked if Strauss was originally happy to sell, despite evidence of laws that prevented Jews from profiting from such transactions.
“The more I pursued my investigation, the more I realized how unlikely it was that Jules could have prevented his collection from being seized by the Nazis,” Baer said. “Even before the invasion of France, the Germans had drawn up a list of the major French collections.
The Dresden State Art Collections have since said: “The investigation into this complex matter has been as thorough and thorough as necessary to ensure that a work of art is returned to its rightful owner. The portrait’s sale in New York this month will now allow Strauss’ 20 heirs to share in its value.
Painted between 1710 and 1714, when Largillière was at the height of his powers, the guardian of the portrait would be Marie Madeleine de La Vieuville, the Marquise de Parabère, mistress of Philippe II, Duke of Orleans. She is represented as Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and abundance.
Strauss, a Frankfurt-born banker, built an extraordinary collection of art, ranging from antiques to impressionists, while in Paris. It is now clear that much of it was subsequently stolen or forcibly sold by the Nazis.