American real estate entrepreneur Bruce Toll has appealed a November ruling that returned Camille Pissarro’s 1887 work, The Pea Harvest, to the heirs of Simon Bauer from whom it was looted by the Nazis in 1943. Toll had purchased the painting from Christie’s for $880,000 in 1995 in what he said was a good faith transaction. He cited the fact that the work had previously been sold 30 years before at Sotheby’s and had an export licence as sufficient reason to believe that the consigner in 1995 had title to it.
Under U.S. law, he would have full title to the work. However, in April of 1945, the French government made an order stating that, “any seizures carried out during the German occupation is ‘considered null and void’ and the ‘dispossessed owner must be returned his item’ through an emergency procedure.” Toll’s case was the first time the 1945 order had been applied to a private collector. Bauers’ lawyer, Cédric Fischer told the Art Newspaper that he understands Toll’s “difficulty grasping legislation that is indeed exorbitant compared with common law. But it is an exceptional law, enacted in the unique historical circumstances of the Shoah and the racial laws in France."
Takeaway: The circumstances under which the Pissarro was restituted are key here. Had Toll not agreed to loan the work to Paris’s Musée Marmottan for an exhibition and instead kept it in the U.S., he would still have his painting. Whether this will cause other collectors, as Toll told the court, to “refuse to lend works of art to France,” remains to be seen.