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Looted art

Art dealer Adam Williams found guilty after 11 years of litigation

Williams will not appeal French court decision, citing health reasons

At the end of 11 years’ litigation, the criminal appeals court in Versailles has found the art dealer Adam Williams guilty of dealing in stolen goods in a case that has outraged the art world. Mr Williams was fined just £50 and given a suspended eight-month sentence, which because of the length of the case, is covered by a Presidential amnesty.

Mr Williams did not appear for the sentencing, and he has decided not to appeal. “My lawyers tell me that I only have about a 20% chance of winning at the next level. I could finally go to the European Court,” he said, “but my health and that of my wife have suffered as a result of this ordeal; I have had enough”.

The whole saga started in 1989 when Mr Williams was a director of Newhouse Galleries in New York. He bought Franz Hals’ “Portrait of Pastor Adrianus Tegularius” at Christie’s for £120,000 (then about $200,000), from the collection of the French businessman Adolf Schloss. Mr Williams displayed it with this provenance on the Newhouse stand at the Biennale des Antiquaires in 1990, where it was seized by the French police. What he did not know at the time was that the painting had been stolen from its Jewish owner by the Gestapo in the château of Chambon, in 1943. The Nazis had been searching for the collection and finally found it in the medieval castle after being tipped off by a French collaborator dealer.

“The painting had been sold at auction by Sotheby’s in 1979 and had been catalogued as stolen, but this was not mentioned in the Christie’s catalogue, which just said ‘in Schloss collection until World War II’”, said Mr Williams. “What I also did not know was that before the sale, the French government had written to Christie’s asking them not to sell it.”

Christie’s admitted this in court, and has compensated Newhouse Galleries and paid Mr Williams’ “substantial” costs during the three trials (two were dismissed for lack of evidence) that were heard about the case. The painting has now been returned to the Schloss heirs.

Depositions were made in favour of Mr Williams by dealers and art world personalities who were present in the courtroom, including Robert Noortman, Ronald Cohen, Anthony Speelman and Johnny van Haeften. Julian Radcliffe of the Art Loss Register explained that at the time of the purchase the whole question of war loot was not an issue and the database did not even exist.

“This is all about France wanting to be seen to clean up its shameful Vichy past, and as a foreigner I was the fall guy”, said Mr Williams, who believes that other cases concerning war loot may now emerge in France. While he has decided not to appeal, this is almost certainly not the end of the matter, as he is now “considering his position vis-à-vis Christie’s”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Art dealer found guilty after 11 years of litigation'