A French court has ordered Christie’s to unconditionally restitute a Dutch painting looted in 1942 in Paris and sold by the auction house in London 17 years ago.
Christie’s auctioned The Penitent Magdalene, signed Adriaen van der Werff and dated 1707, for £60,000 on 22 April 2005, without any indication of its provenance. In 2017, Christie's was contacted by its client who wished to sell the piece. This time it contacted the descendants of the former owner, Lionel Hauser.
It turns out the painting was registered in the Répertoire des biens spoliés, a directory of looted goods published after the Second World War, with a detailed description and several photographs. In 1945 Lionel Hauser, a Parisian banker and collector who donated some of his paintings to the Louvre, reported his collection, including the panel, had been seized by the Germans from a storage unit in Paris on 23 October 1942. Hauser was the cousin of Marcel Proust, his friend and for a while his financial adviser, and the ties linking the great writer to the Hauser family attracted the attention of the French press.
In a statement to The Art Newspaper, Christie’s claims “its research revealed the origin of the panel”. The heirs say they alerted the auction house to its history. Christie’s kept the painting in storage in London and proposed “its restitution to the Hauser family and an amicable settlement“ with the seller, which failed.
According to the family, the auction house proposed to put the work on sale and equally share the proceeds between both parties, “while retaining its fees, even though it had obviously failed to research the work's provenance when it was auctioned in 2005”.
Christie’s lawyer, Philippe Plantade, challenged the competence of the French courts to judge the case on the grounds “the property and the seller are located in England”, so the case should be heard by the High Court in London. Christie’s argued its client acquired the painting in good faith in 2005 and the statute of limitation under British law (six years after the sale) had expired.
But in its judgement, dated 27 January, the Paris civil court found that French law does indeed apply, as the looting took place in Paris and Lionel Hauser’s descendants are French citizens. Under French law, all subsequent sales of goods looted under German occupation can be considered null and void. The court ordered Christie’s to return the painting to the Hauser family, with a €500 per day penalty for any delays. Christie’s is also directed to disclose the identity of its client and the provenance of the panel prior to 2005.
The Hauser heirs’ lawyer, Charlotte Caron, says "they were happy to obtain justice after years of denial by Christie’s”, although she admits that enforcing the judgement could be a challenge now that the UK is no longer a member of the European Union. The auction house can still launch an appeal, but it says it will “make contact with the family” hoping to settle out of court.