The curious case of the looted portrait

LONDON. A looted portrait restituted to a Polish family has sold at Christie’s King Street for £46,100 ($89,400, est £20,000-£30,000) to London dealer Johnny van Haeften (25 April). Originally it had been consigned by a Latvian owner to Christie’s South Kensington, and was catalogued as “English School, 18th century”, (est £800-£1,200; $1,550-$2,400). It was eventually identified by the auctioneers as by Flemish artist Pieter de Grebber (1600-53).

In retrospect, it seems surprising that a portrait from Latvia should have been been attributed by Christie’s to an English artist. It is equally curious that the Latvian owner went to the expense of shipping a work with such a modest estimate to London (unless it was part of a larger consignment). A routine check of the 15 March 2006 catalogue by the Art Loss Register (undertaken as part of Christie’s due diligence) revealed that the portrait had once belonged to Warsaw antiques dealer Abe Gutnajer, who was murdered in the ghetto in 1942. The portrait is recorded in a catalogue of looted works (Wartime Losses: Foreign Painting), published by the Polish authorities in 2000. It was this entry which alerted Christie’s that the painting had been attributed to De Grebber.

Gutnajer’s US heirs were recently traced by the Polish authorities, and through Christie’s, the Latvian consignor and the heirs reached a settlement, with ownership transferred. Further research confirmed that the painting was indeed a De Grebber. It was then given its pre-war title, A Boy in Profile, Singing, in a Feigned Oval. Martin Bailey

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