A French court has ordered Christie’s to return an 18th-century Dutch painting to the heirs of a French banker and distant relative of Marcel Proust that was the subject of a restitution claim.
The painting at the center of the dispute, The Penitent Magdalene, was produced in 1707 by the Dutch artist Adriaen Van Der Werff. It was part of a collection owned by Lionel Hauser, a cousin of Marcel Proust who was known to have helped aided the author with his finances until 1920.
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The work, which was consigned for sale at Christie’s London in 2018 and last sold by the house more than a decade earlier, in 2005, was confiscated from Hauser’s property during World War II.
During the war, Hauser faced the threat of deportation and eventually sought refuge in the south of France. A total of 40 artworks are believed to have been taken by the Nazis when Hauser’s Paris residence was raided in 1942. Before his death of natural causes in 1958, the Jewish financier sought legal recourse in Germany to recover the stolen work, but was unsuccessful.
Christie’s notified the collector’s descendants of the painting having resurfaced in 2018, when it was consigned for sale by an anonymous British collector. According to an attorney representing six of Hauser’s heirs in the dispute, Christie’s tried unsuccessfully to facilitate a private mediation between the heirs and the owner of the painting, who went unnamed by the house, in order to reach a settlement agreement.
The current owner declined to come forward during the process. Christie’s, citing legal standards in the U.K., refused to identify the work’s owner and retained the painting at a London facility in escrow.
The court ordered Christie’s to disclose the identity of the painting’s owner, as well as record of the painting’s sale and current location. The house was also ordered to pay heirs $10,900 in procedural fees. The decision also declared “nullity” of all sales of the work following its confiscation in 1945, which is recorded in public archives.
Christie’s argued that a U.K. standard allows the current owner’s title to remain six years of its purchase without a claim ever having been made.
In an initial claim filed this past July, the heirs challenged Christie’s decision to shield the buyer’s identity, relying on a 1945 French ordinance standard guiding the time limits for restitution claims. They also said that ordinance should enable that case to be tried outside the U.K.
The work last sold at Christie’s in 2005 for £60,000. The heirs’ lawyers said that, at the time of the sale, the work’s cataloguing entry did not include mention of Hauser’s prior ownership. In 2019, Christie’s valued the work at between £30,000 and £50,000 ($37,000 and $61,000).
Christie’s initially offered to sell the painting and split the proceeds between the current owner and the Hauser heirs. “The discussions between Christie’s London and my clients were not successful because my clients did not consider Christie’s London proposals satisfactory,” Charlotte Caron, a lawyer for the heirs, told ARTnews. She added that there was no attempt at “legal mediation” on Christie’s part.
In a statement to ARTnews, a representative for Christie’s said the house, following discussion with the Hauser family about a potential restitution agreement raised in 2020, “regrets that this was not possible by earlier amicable resolution.” The spokesperson added that Christie’s “looks now forward to finalizing this matter with the heirs of the Hauser Family.” The Christie’s spokesperson did not say if the house will appeal the decision.
News of the decision comes a week after the auction house began a year of restitution-related programming aimed at collectors and sellers. Events associated with it have taken part in Paris and are slated to continue in London, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere.
According to Caron, the case is one of the few in France where courts have used the 1945 French ordinance to order the return of a Nazi-looted art work located abroad. In 2018, when a French court used the ordinance to force American collectors Bruce and Robbi Toll to relinquish a war-looted Pissarro painting, it raised debates about the decades-old ordinance’s power over foreign transactions. In that case, a judge ruled the 1945 French standard voided the original sale of the Pissarro, making the Tolls’ purchase invalid.
Christie’s could appeal the Paris court’s decision or move to block the return of the painting in the U.K., Caron noted.