Jun 1, 2018

After buying a work from Christie’s that turned out to be looted by the Nazis, a Swiss dealer wants his money back.

In 2016, the art restitution service Mondex contacted Alain Dreyfus and informed him that a small painting by Alfred Sisley that he purchased at a day sale at Christie’s in 2008 had been looted by the Nazis in 1940, and rightfully belonged to the Jewish family they had taken it from. As artnet News reports, citing an account from the French paper L’Alsace, Mondex investigators had determined that the work appeared on a list of work Hitler’s forces had wrested from Jewish families, and sure enough, upon close inspection, a card bears the initials of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. Swiss authorities took control of the Sisley, and Dreyfus readily ceded ownership to the family who had it stolen from them in the war.
But the dealer still thought it only proper to have Christie’s reimburse him, plus interest, after selling him a work with tainted provenance. So he invoiced the house’s Zurich branch for €700,000 ($817,000). “Christie’s had to know all of this!” Dreyfus told L’Alsace. “When you sell a painting, you do research.” A Christie’s spokesperson told artnet News that it checks every lot against the databases of restitution claims, and in this case, it had no way of identifying the work as looted—the information Mondex used to track the work down was not available until years after the sale. The sale is an example of why a representative from the asset recovery firm recommends that “buyers of art, at auctions, should insist that the auction house indemnify them in the event that a claim is ever made in the future.” No decision has been made on whether the house will pay Dreyfus any of the requested funds.