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Rediscovered after decades: the painting supposedly ‘bought’ by the Nazis

New evidence that the Nazis set up fake auctions and fake papers to cover up their looting of art and valuables has been uncovered by an amateur detective investigating her own family mystery.

French writer Pauline Baer de Perignon’s investigation has revealed the fate of a missing art collection that includes work by Monet, Renoir and Degas, and has also revealed the reluctance of Europe’s leading museums to accept evidence of the deception.

Baer was prompted to look into the past when she ran into an English cousin who told her he believed the family had been “robbed”.

“The whole thing changed my life,” Baer said this weekend. “I have had to look back on a long forgotten family story and also on the hidden secrets of the Gestapo. And then I had to face the truth about paintings held by galleries such as the Louvre and the State Museum in Dresden. I was so naive when I started.”

Baer’s three years of investigation have not only led to a better understanding of how important works of art were systematically stolen after Germany invaded France, but will culminate in the high-profile sale of a recovered painting at Sotheby’s in New York later this month. York.

Jules Strauss, the great-grandfather of Pauline Baer de Perignon, who had the painting in his home in Paris. Photo: Alamy

Portrait of a Lady Like Pomona, by the respected 18th-century French artist Nicolas de Largillière, was once owned by her great-grandfather, the Parisian collector Jules Strauss, and was only returned to his descendants last year. It is now expected to sell for $1 million-$1.5 million (£750,000 – £1.1 million). “I could have asked my father to tell me about Jules Strauss, but I never did,” explains Baer. “My father died when I was 20, before I was bold enough to ask him about the war, about his parents and grandparents, about his emotions and his memories.”

Baer’s curiosity was aroused when she bumped into her cousin Andrew Strauss at a concert in Paris eight years ago. The two hadn’t met since she was a teenager, but he told her he worked at Sotheby’s and found the apparent sale of the Strauss collection in the early 1940s “obscure.” He told his stunned cousin about the involvement of fake companies, Nazi officers and museum inventories. “Andrew’s words sent my mind tumbling down a rabbit hole,” Baer said.

Armed with a scribbled note with the names of famous artists, Baer began to piece together the lost past. She was now as interested in what had happened to her distant relatives as in the fate of the missing art. A book about her efforts, The Lost Collection, has already made waves in France, where it appeared last year and where critics compared it to a gripping suspense novel. A reviewer for Elle said it was as “devouring as a thriller,” while others have compared the family’s story to that of other famous Jewish families whose art was looted in the war, such as the Camondos, the Rothschilds, and the Ephrussis.

At the beginning of Baer’s research, she only had one photograph of Strauss, her illustrious great-grandfather, and another of the many portraits that hung on the walls of his former home on Avenue Foch in Paris. She knew the apartment was gone, but there was one elderly relative who knew firsthand what had happened.

She delved into the archives of major museums and asked difficult questions to the French Ministry of Culture. She was surprised to find out how the thefts were covered up, but her English translator, Natasha Lehrer, believes the most powerful part of the book is about how modern art institutions have dragged their feet and, at worst, cast doubt on the ownership of important paintings. have avoided. .

Photo of three American soldiers walking down a flight of stairs holding paintings in front of the camera, while an officer further up the stairs holds a list
American troops retrieve stolen art from Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany in 1945. Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann archive

“What Pauline discovered was an apparent reluctance among those who ran several major state museums to admit that they owned looted works of art until recently,” Lehrer said. “This is despite the fact that families and collectors often had all the provenance data to identify them as rightful owners. There has been a remarkable reluctance to return artworks.” The English version of Baer’s book must come published next month through the head of Zeus.

Baer tracked down Largillière’s portrait in Dresden’s state art collections and found archival evidence to prove Strauss was forced to sell it. The masterpiece was apparently acquired in 1941 for the Reichsbank in Berlin and then transferred to the Ministry of Finance before going to Dresden in 1959. Baer found the words “Collection Jules Strauss” next to Largillière’s entry in the German Lost Art Foundation, but was then told that the director of the museum in Dresden had no intention of returning it. She was asked if Strauss was originally happy to sell, despite evidence of laws preventing Jews from taking advantage of such deals.

“The more I continued with my research, the more I realized how unlikely it was that Jules could have prevented his collection from being seized by the Nazis,” Baer said. “Even before the invasion of France, the Germans had compiled a list of major French collections.”

Dresden’s state art collections have since said, “The investigation of this complex case has been as extensive and thorough as is necessary to ensure that a work of art is returned to its rightful owner.” The sale of the portrait in New York this month now gives all 20 of Strauss’s heirs a share of its value.

Painted between 1710 and 1714, when Largillière was at the height of his power, the sitter for the portrait is believed to be Marie Madeleine de La Vieuville, the Marquise de Parabère, mistress of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans. She is depicted as Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and abundance.

Strauss, a Frankfurt-born banker, built an extraordinary collection of art ranging from antiques to the Impressionists while in Paris. It is now clear that much of it was stolen or forcibly sold by the Nazis at the time.