French court to decide who owns Pissarro’s pea pickers

The lawyer for an American couple defending a restitution claim for a Camille Pissarro painting has said they should not have to “pay for the crimes of Vichy”.

On Tuesday (10 October 2017) a hearing began in Paris to determine whether or not Bruce and Robbi Toll are the rightful owners of ‘La Cueillette des Pois’ (‘Picking Peas’). The 1887 gouache originally belonged to French Jewish owner, Simon Bauer. The work was one of 93 in Bauer’s collection confiscated by the Nazis before Bauer was sent to the Drancy concentration camp.

When Bauer was freed in 1944, he sought to recover the works of which he was stripped. His descendants continue to fight this battle and now his grandson, Jean-Jacques Bauer, seeks restitution of the Pissarro through the French courts.

Jean-Jacques rediscovered the lost gouache when it emerged on display at an exhibit at the Marmottan Museum in Paris. The Tolls had lent the work to the Museum for a major Pissarro retrospective. Jean-Jacques immediately filed suit to keep the Pissarro in Paris and to have it returned to the Bauer family. The Bauers seek to rely on a 1945 law which annuls the sale of looted works.

On the contrary, the Tolls will argue that the 1945 law does not apply to this lawsuit nor does the French court have competence to determine ownership of the painting. They contend that they bought the work in good faith from Christie’s auction house and were completely unaware of its wartime provenance.

The Tolls’ lawyer, Ron Soffer, told the press that by underlining “a risk of legal insecurity” around loans to French exhibitions the case could have significant repercussions for the art world.

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