After a Long Legal Battle, French Court Orders American Couple to Return Nazi-Looted Pissarro

The American owners of the work plan to appeal the Paris High Court decision.

Camille Pissarro, La Cueillette des pois (The Pea Harvest), ca. 1887. Photo by RDN Arts.

The High Court of Paris has ordered a Florida couple to return a painting by Camille Pissarro to the descendants of the Jewish collector, Simon Bauer, from whom it was taken during the Nazi occupation of France. The precedent set by the ruling could be bad news for other collectors who have bought works in good faith, only to find out later that they were looted.

The painting in question, Pissarro’s La Cueillete des Pois (Pea Harvest) (1887), was seized in Paris under anti-semitic laws during the Vichy regime 74 years ago. Its journey from Bauer’s collection to the courtroom is emblematic of Jewish families’ complex, generations-spanning struggle to reclaim art lost during World War II.

The gouache, which depicts six women harvesting peas, was one of 93 Impressionist paintings in Bauer’s collection. (Thirteen of those were Pissarros, according to an inventory of his collection from the time.)

Bauer began attempts to recover his collection shortly after he was liberated from the Drancy camp in Seine-Saint-Denis in 1944. On November 8, 1945, the High Court declared the forced sales of his works null and void and ordered the objects’ restitution.

But not all the paintings were recovered—there are around 20 still unaccounted for—and when Bauer died in 1947, his grandson Jean-Jacques (now himself an octogenarian), took up the search for the remaining loot.

Pea Harvest finally resurfaced during a retrospective at the Marmottan-Monet Museum in Paris this past May, when the descendants of the dispossessed collector noticed it and requested an interim injunction to keep the work in France while they filed an ownership suit.

Here’s the rub: The painting was legally purchased by an American couple, Bruce and Robbi Toll, in 1995. They acquired the painting for $800,000 at a Christie’s sale in New York, and then lent the work to the Paris museum in which it was spotted.

The ruling on Tuesday included an order for the Tolls to pay over $9,000 in court fees to the Bauers. At trial last month, the Tolls noted that they had bought the painting in good faith, and are themselves Jewish and “very sensitive” to the memory of the Holocaust.

But Bauer’s lawyer, Cèdric Fischer, told the AFP: “This right to restitution is imprescriptible because it stems from a crime against humanity.”

The American couple’s lawyer, Ron Soffer, however, told AFP that his clients would appeal the decision, maintaining the argument that the work was bought in good faith“This is a case full of emotions and tragedies, but Mr. Toll is not responsible for Vichy’s crimes,” he said.

The painting has been sequestered at Paris’s Orsay and Orangerie museums awaiting the conclusion of the second trial.

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