The veteran Paris dealer Daniel Wildenstein is waiting for the appeal to be heard in the Italian courts after his failed attempt to get back Boldini’s “Spanish dancer”, a 70 by 60cm oil painting given to him for his bar mitzvah in 1930 by his grandfather Nathan Wildenstein and disposed of in a forced sale by the Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives in October 1942 to the Paris dealer Count Trotti.
According to Mr Wildenstein, it was then acquired by the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and later presented to the Italian Foreign Minister, Count Ciano. The painting descended in his family until it appeared on the Italian market around 1968. In 1989, Mr Wildenstein caught up with his painting in an exhibition held in Bologna, on loan from Mr Luigi Pazzaglia, a resident of Bologna. Mr Wildenstein alerted the authorities, who seized the picture, which was found to have a “W” on the back, the letter with which the Germans had marked most Wildenstein paintings. In 1990, Mr Wildenstein brought a case against Mr Pazzaglia, and in January 1995 the verdict was finally given: Mr Wildenstein had lost and was charged costs of L30 million (£12,000; $18,000) because, according to the court, he had failed to demonstrate his claim.
Mr Wildenstein points out that in 1945, Count Trotti returned to the Wildenstein family a third Boldini he had acquired at the same time as the “Spanish dancer”, stating that this painting, with the portrait, “Mme Henriette Harley”, were in Italy. In 1947, the two missing Boldinis were included in G. Vala’s manuscript list of paintings, watercolours, drawings, miniatures, gouaches, furniture and works of art belonging to the Maison Wildenstein et Cie, 57, rue de la Boétie, Paris, “objets achetés sous contrainte par les Allemands et vendus par Administrateur durant l’Occupation”.
These two pictures were also included in the Répertoire des biens spoliés en France durant la guerre 1939-45, published in Berlin in 1948. Confusion was then sowed in Ettore Camesasca’s Opera completa di Boldini of 1970, where he muddles up the life-size version of the “Spanish dancer” in the Maurice de Rothschild collection, sold at Christie’s in November 1995, and the smaller version belonging to Daniel Wildenstein, stating that the Wildenstein painting had been sold to Rothschild and then passed to Ribbentrop and Ciano. In fact, the Rothschild Boldinis are also listed in the Répertoire des biens spoliés, and were mostly recovered after the war.
Assuming that Mr Wildenstein manages to prove his erstwhile ownership of the “Spanish dancer” to the Court of Appeal, the question is whether he can still recover title under Italian law. This, as all systems influenced by the Napoleonic code, generally favours the current owner—in the trade in moveables, possession equates to title”. In other words, whoever appears to be the owner of an object is deemed to be its owner and therefore allowed to sell it, unless the circumstances are clearly suspicious. The current owner of the Boldini, Mr Pazzaglia, would therefore be considered a good-faith purchaser and entitled to the painting.
Mr Wildenstein’s lawyers may invoke decree 601 of the provisional government in Rome, dated 5 May 1946, which obliged anyone holding works of art “under whatever title” to deliver them to the nearest police or carabinier station within thirty days of the decree, even if they came from foreign countries and in any case “derived from the German State or from German organisations or subjects”. The decree goes on to say that holders of such works of art cannot invoke good-faith purchase. The crucial point here will be whether the passing of forty years renders this decree inoperative or not.
Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Daniel Wildenstein said that he will pursue this case on principle, not because he cares about having the picture back; in fact, he would be prepared to give it away if only justice were done.