French court rules painting belongs to heirs of Holocaust victim

A French court upheld a ruling ordering a couple to return a Camille Pissarro painting to the descendants of a Jewish family that owned it before it was stolen during the Holocaust.

By: AP

A Paris appeals court on Tuesday upheld a ruling ordering an American couple to return a Camille Pissarro painting to the descendants of a Jewish family that owned the art work before it was seized during the Holocaust.

The couple, prominent Philadelphia collectors Bruce and Robbi Toll, loaned Pissarro’s “La Cueillette des Pois” (“Picking Peas”) to a Paris museum for an exhibition last year. But the painting from the impressionist master was placed in temporary escrow after one of the heirs of the Jewish family recognized it and sued to get it back.

The Tolls, who are also Jewish, said they did not know when they bought the Pissarro that it had been stolen by France’s war-era Vichy regime from Jewish collector Simon Bauer.

The lawyer representing Bauer’s descendants, Cedric Fischer, said Tuesday’s ruling “sanctions the right of the victims of acts of barbarity committed by the Vichy regime to recover, without limit of duration, the goods they have been dispossessed of.”

A civil court last year ruled that the Tolls didn’t act in bad faith when they bought the painting from Christie’s auction house more than two decades ago. But it said that sales of all goods looted from Jewish people by the French Vichy regime or its Nazi allies during the war were declared void by France’s post-war authorities in 1945.

Judges didn’t award any financial compensation for the couple, who purchased the painting for $800,000 in 1995.

The Bauer family had previously received 109,304 euros in compensation for losing the painting. Fischer told The Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday that his clients have committed to return that money once they have the painting back.

Painted by Pissarro in 1887, the canvas was confiscated by French authorities after Bauer’s relatives found out it was on display in Paris as part of an exhibition and filed a lawsuit to have the work returned.

In his statement, Fischer said his clients now hope the Tolls will “respect the decision of the Paris Court of Appeal and not to keep going with the procedures which only aggravate the harm they have suffered.”

Messages left with Toll’s suburban Philadelphia office and an email seeking comment weren’t returned Tuesday.

Bauer’s collection of more than 90 paintings was confiscated in 1943 by the Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Nazis, and sold by a vendor designated by the General Commissariat for Jewish Questions.

After Simon Bauer’s death in 1947, his grandson Jean-Jacques began the search for the stolen art. He has recovered only a few pieces.

According to Fischer, the painting is now worth about $1.75 million, the price paid by the Tolls for its insurance. He said last year the painting was first bought by Theo van Gogh, the brother of Vincent van Gogh, who purchased it from Pissarro.