Christie’s Auction House Ordered By French Court to Return Nazi-Looted Painting to Heirs of Jewish Owner
by Shiryn Ghermezian
A French court has ordered the auction house Christie’s London to return The Penitent Magdalene by Dutch artist Adriaen van der Werff to the heirs of its World War II-era Jewish owner after it was discovered that the 18th century artwork was looted by the Nazis, Artnet News reported Wednesday.
The oil-on-panel painting from 1707 was owned by Lionel Hauser, an art collector and Jewish banker in Paris who was also the cousin of French novelist and essayist Marcel Proust. In 1945, Hauser reported that the Nazis confiscated his entire art collection — a total of 40 artworks, including The Penitent Magdalene — from his Paris home in 1942. The French government later included photographs of the stolen artwork in its official catalogue of items looted in France by the Nazis during World War II. Before his death of natural causes in 1958, Hauser attempted to recover his stolen property in Germany through legal proceedings but to no avail, according to ARTnews.
Christie’s sold The Penitent Magdalene in 2005 for $115,185 and in its sale did not include a provenance history that mentioned Hauser’s previous ownership.
In 2017, the painting’s current owner, an anonymous British collector, approached Christie’s about selling the painting. After the auction house researched the artwork and discovered that it once belonged to Hauser, Christie’s legal department contacted his heirs about the looted work. The auction house initially offered to split the proceeds of the work’s sale—minus Christie’s fees—between the heirs and the current owner. In 2019, the auction house estimated the value for The Penitent Magdalene to be between $37,000 and $61,000.
The auction house refused to turn over the artwork to Hauser’s heirs and claimed there is a statute of limitations under British law since more than six years had passed since the painting’s sale in 2005, Artnet News reported. Hauser’s heirs sued Christie’s London in June 2022 in Paris civil court for return of the painting.
The court sided with the family and also rejected Christie’s claim that France has no jurisdiction in matters pertaining to the artwork because the painting and its current owner were both in London. Christie’s must also pay Hauser’s family a $545 daily fine for any delays, identify the painting’s current owner and location, and pay the heirs $10,900 in procedural fees.
“Restitution has essentially a symbolic value for them, more than any economic offer,” the heirs’ lawyer, Charlotte Caron, said about her clients in an email to Artnet News. “We think that voluntary auctioneers should not continue to seek to make profits on artworks with such histories.”
A spokesperson for Christie’s London told The Algemeiner that the auction house “looks now forward to finalizing this matter with the heirs of the Hauser family.”
“Christie’s is pleased to have identified concern over this painting’s provenance and to have informed the Hauser heirs, allowing them the possibility to claim the work,” the representative added. “Christie’s, facilitating discussions between the parties, had offered to restitute the painting to the heirs of the Hauser Family and regrets that this was not possible by earlier amicable resolution.”