Art buyer sues Christie’s for failing to do its homework

The buyer of a Nazi-looted painting claims Christie’s auction house did not research the work’s provenance thoroughly enough before it sold it to him.

French art dealer, Alain Dreyfus, argues that if the auction house had dug deeper into the archives it would have discovered that Alfred Sisley’s ‘Premier jour de printemps à Moret’ (‘First Day of Spring in Moret’ 1889) had belonged to a Jewish collector in Paris. Alfred Lindon, né Lindonbaum, hid the painting in a Chase Bank safe and fled Paris when Hitler invaded in 1940.

According to art recovery company, Mondex Corporation, the work was confiscated by the Nazis and stored at the Jeu de Paume. At one stage, it found its way into the private collection of Nazi official Hermann Goering.

Dreyfus, who has a gallery in Basel, bought the Sisley from Christie’s New York in 2008 for US$338,500 (£253,089). At the time, there was no indication from the auction house that the painting was spoliated. In light of Mondex Corporation’s investigation, Dreyfus is suing Christie’s for a refund of the purchase price together with 8% interest.

Mondex argues that if the auction house consulted a directory of looted items published in France in 1947 it would have discovered that ‘First Day of Spring’ was among several paintings by Sisley stolen by the Nazis. Evidence of the theft is also recorded in documents stored by the US National Archives and Records Administration.

Christie’s maintains it performed all reasonable checks on the artwork and that only four lost art databases were available and routinely investigated prior to the sale of the Sisley in 2008. One of the databases used by Mondex did not become digitally available until approximately two years after the auction. Christie’s also reiterated its commitment to identifying stolen artworks.

Lindon’s heirs agree with Dreyfus that Christie’s did not sufficiently research the painting’s provenance prior to the sale. They are negotiating the return of the painting with Dreyfus. Whether or not Dreyfus will secure his refund from Christie’s after launching legal proceedings remains to be seen but he is determined. “With Christie’s, it’s war,” he vowed.

Head of Mondex, James Palmer, warned art buyers to learn from the Dreyfus case and insist auction houses indemnify them against purchasing works, which might form the subject of future ownership claims. “This would likely encourage auction houses to be far more accountable and therefore to stop selling stolen art”, Palmer explained.

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