In recent art world news, a buyer of a painting recently identified as having been confiscated by the Nazis in 1940 from a Jewish collector in Paris is asking Christie’s to refund the purchase price paid a decade ago for the tainted work.  Christie’s has maintained that it is committed to ensuring that Nazi looted artworks from World War II are not offered for sale.

The buyer, Alain Dreyfus, a Swiss-based art dealer, who purchased the painting by Impressionist landscape painter Alfred Sisley titled “First Day of Spring in Moret” (1889) at a Christie’s auction in New York in 2008, believes the auction house did not thoroughly examine the work’s provenance before offering it for sale.  Dreyfus paid $338,500 for the painting and is asking Christie’s to refund him the purchase price in addition to an annual interest rate of eight percent.  Dreyfus has reportedly said that he is willing to return the painting to the heirs of Alfred Lindon, the collector from whom the work was seized.

Christie’s has said that it had reviewed all databases, catalogues and resources available at the time and did not find anything to indicate that the painting was ever in the collection of Lindon.

An investigation by Toronto-based art recovery company Mondex Corporation revealed that Lindon had placed the Sisley painting along with the rest of his collection in a bank safe before fleeing Paris when the Nazis invaded the city.  The artworks were later seized and stored at the Jeu de Paume for processing.  As a result of Mondex’s investigative efforts, records evidenced that the Sisley painting had been in the possession of Hermann Goering at some point.  Goering was the Reichsmarschall who was “heavily involved in the Nazi art seizures.”

Dreyfus believes Christie’s would have discovered the painting’s tainted history had the auction house conducted an in-depth review of the work’s provenance.  The Lindon heirs share the buyer’s view and are seeking the return of the painting after its provenance and Nazi seizure were discovered by Mondex.

Christie’s has further said that its commitment to the identification of stolen artworks is “evident in the fact that it routinely checks individual works consigned for sale against more than a dozen databases.”  However, prior to the sale of the painting in 2008, only four databases were “available and routinely checked” and there was no evidence in the auction house’s review to suggest that the provenance gap was meaningful.

Mondex believes differently as its founder wrote in an e-mail to the international director of restitution of Christie’s that the auction house “could have consulted a directory of looted items published in France in 1947, which stated that several Sisley paintings, including three ‘Spring’ scenes, were stolen from there.”  Mondex’s founder further wrote that the auction house “could have checked a collection of Nazi documents maintained by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, which indicated that a Sisley ‘Spring’ painting had been stolen.”  Mondex’s founder noted that further research at the archives “could have shown that the Lindons were the owners of a stolen painting with the same dimensions, signature and date as the one to be auctioned.”

Christie’s countered that one of the databases used by Mondex did not become digitized until about two years after the 2008 auction sale.  Nevertheless, Dreyfus believes that the auction house is obligated to reimburse him for the Nazi-tainted painting.  Dreyfus has said that Christie’s has not responded to his request for a refund of the purchase price.

Christie’s has issued the following statement on the matter:  “The matter is now between the current owner and the heirs and is now in a legal process.  Christie’s stands by its position that we did our due diligence appropriately in 2008, at the time of the sale.”

It appears that the Sisley painting will be returned to the Lindon heirs in due course, however, it remains to be seen whether Dreyfus will be issued a refund for the purchase price paid for the tainted painting.