Art Looted by the Nazis: The Struggle of Elizabeth Royer-Grimblat

A specialist in works stolen by the Nazis during the Second World War, this fierce investigator reveals her most ardent battles against oblivion. Her interlocutors: dealers, auctioneers, museum curators and private collectors. Her strength: she asks for no compensation to preserve her freedom of action.

It took seventy-five years for Pissarro’s painting “The Picking of the Peas”, which had been stolen by the Nazis in 1943, to be – thanks to you – returned to the Bauer family! Elizabeth Royer-Grimblat.2015, I had located several paintings stolen from Simon Bauer during the war and I knew the file well.Two years later, during the preview of the Pissarro exhibition at the Marmottan Monet Museum, I identified the gouache sold in 1943 by Lefranc, the provisional administrator of the Bauer collection appointed by the General Commissariat for Jewish Questions. I contacted Simon Bauer’s grandson, Jean-Jacques, who was looking for the missing paintings. He immediately had the gouache sequestered so that it would not leave France.

Who owned it? Les Toll, an experienced American collector and patron of the University of Jerusalem. They acquired the work at Christie’s in New York in 1995 for $800,000, without worrying about where it came from. It took more than three years of a fierce legal battle, during which the couple would do everything in their power to get the case tried in the American courts, before the Bauers finally won their case.

Rumor has it that the Toll are victims of a new state spoliation in this case… The Toll are above all victims of their strategic errors: by accepting that Christie’s supports them by financing them all the way to the Court of Cassation, they are aligning themselves with the positions of the auction house, which has always denied the Bauer family’s rights to obtain justice, thus cutting themselves off from any possibility of a negotiated solution.Recently, the judges of the Court of Cassation invited them to turn against the seller of the looted property, namely Christie’s. Unfortunately, they signed a contract with the auction house providing for a statute of limitations – long expired – against any legal recourse! To save face, they decided to take the French State to the European Court of Human Rights and claim compensation for their violated property rights and the loss of a work estimated at $1.7 million.

What a legal imbroglio! What made you decide to specialize in this research? Hector Feliciano’s book published in 1995: “Le musée disparu.enquête sur le pillage d’oeuvres d’art en France par les nazis” was a real detonator for the victims of spoliations and for the entire art market.Thanks to this book, I discovered – something that everyone didn’t know – that there were documents at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that could identify the names of owners of unclaimed works of art in museums. Many families then rushed to the Quai d’Orsay, often only to find that they were refused communication.So I decided to list and digitize the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs concerning art recovery, the Obip (Office of Property and Private Interests) and the archives of Rose Valland, a resistance fighter and museum curator who died in 1980. Documents had been declassified, photos of the works had been separated from the lists, supposedly to protect them. Some documentalists had made decisions far too hastily in relation to such a huge collection and had not thought about how to use them. Fortunately, things have changed since then.

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