Christie's in hot water over artwork

LONDON • Did Christie's brush away the need to do further homework? One buyer insists that the auction house should have been more vigilant, asking it to return money he paid a decade ago for a painting recently identified as having been plundered by Nazis in 1940 from a Jewish collector in Paris.

Mr Alain Dreyfus, an art dealer in Switzerland who bought Alfred Sisley's artwork First Day Of Spring In Moret at a 2008 auction in New York, said Christie's did not sufficiently examine its history before putting it up for sale.

He paid US$338,500 and is now seeking that sum back, plus an annual interest rate of 8 per cent.

He is willing to return the painting to the heirs of Mr Alfred Lindon, from whom it was seized.

The dispute over the painting was reported last week in Le Monde newspaper, which stated that a Lindon descendant had filed a claim in a court in Paris.

Christie's said it checked all available databases, catalogues and resources in 2008 and found nothing to indicate the painting was ever in Mr Lindon's collection.

He had placed the Sisley and the rest of his collection in a bank safe before he fled Paris when the Nazis invaded the city, an investigation by Mondex, an art recovery company based in Toronto, showed. The works were then confiscated.

At the time of the sale, Christie's cited a provenance that included a gap between 1923 - when the painting was listed as having been in the possession of someone identified as M. Perdoux - and 1972, when it was sold by Wildenstein and Co in Paris.

That alone should have been a signal that the painting merited additional scrutiny, Mr Dreyfus said.

His view is shared by the Lindon heirs, who are pursuing the return of the painting.

Christie's said its commitment to identifying stolen artworks is evident in the fact that it routinely checks individual works consigned for sale against more than a dozen databases. But in 2008, only four databases were available. Its review found no evidence to suggest that the gap in provenance was meaningful.

But Mondex has argued differently. In an e-mail in September to Christie's, it wrote 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.

Christie's could also have checked Nazi documents maintained by the United States National Archives and Records Administration, which indicated that a Sisley Spring painting had been stolen.

Further research at the archives, Mondex said, could have shown that the Lindons were owners of a stolen painting with the same dimensions, signature and date as the one to be auctioned.

Christie's has argued that one of the databases used by Mondex was not digitised until about two years after the auction in New York.

Regardless of that, Mr Dreyfus believes Christie's has an obligation to repay him. "This painting was stolen by the Nazis," he said. "If you sell stolen paintings, you have to pay back the buyer."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2018, with the headline 'Christie's in hot water over artwork'. Print Edition | Subscribe