15 June 2018

"Premier jour de printemps à Moret" by Alfred Sisley--Part One

by Marc Masurovsky

Premier jour de printemps à Moret, by Alfed Sisley
courtesy of Le Monde
On May 25, 2018, a story broke in “L’Alsace”, a regional French newspaper, regarding a notable from Mulhouse, Alain Dreyfus, well-known art dealer and collector who plies his trade across the border in Basel, Switzerland.  According to the Alsatian newspaper, Mr. Dreyfus is all up in arms over a painting by Alfred Sisley, “Premier jour de printemps à Moret,” which the Impressionist artist produced in 1889. Dreyfus acquired it at Christie’s in New York on November 6, 2008, without giving it much thought since, in his own words, “when you go to an auction sale, you don’t check anything because you assume that everything has been checked.” So much for due diligence.

At some point in 2016, according to Mr. Dreyfus as reported in “L’Alsace”, a Toronto-based company, Mondex, contacted him to let him know that the Sisley in question was a looted painting which had once belonged to a French Jewish family by the name of Lindenbaum or Lindon, and that the Nazis had stolen the painting during the German occupation of France. Although dismayed at the news, he informed the Canadians that he would restitute the painting as long as Christie’s reimbursed him for the money spent in 2008 at the New York sale. Through his lawyers, Dreyfus laid out his position: either Christie’s indemnifies the family and he keeps the painting, or he restitutes the painting and Christie’s pays him back.

In 2017, one of the Lindon family heirs contacted Mr. Dreyfus by mail to confirm that he still had the painting. Then, he found out that the Lindon heir turned around and sued Christie’s. Meanwhile, the Swiss police has sequestered the painting until the issue is resolved. Dreyfus has since sent an invoice to the Christie’s office in Zurich for 700,000 euros, although he paid 338,500 dollars for the painting in 2008. His excuse for asking double the price of the painting? Christie’s allegedly pocketed 694 million euros from a recent Rockefeller sale. Hence, his bill represents  the equivalent of pocket change.  Mr. Dreyfus is clearly incensed and fuming, in a way that few art dealers are when faced with a restitution claim resulting from an auction sale.

According to a May 28, 2018, article which appeared in “Le Monde,” the main critique leveled at Christie’s is that it could not have ignored the looted history of the painting since it has an internal section focused on looted art. That critique was leveled by Denis Lindon, 91 year old grandson of the plundered victim, Alfred Lindon.

In a May 31, 2018, article, artnet.com quoted James Palmer of Mondex, who confirmed that the Sisley painting had been confiscated by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) “and passed through the hands of Hermann Goering.” As supporting evidence, a document produced by the ERR was reproduced in the artnet piece; that document came from the Database of Art objects that transited through the Jeu de Paume (better known as the ERR database). One might speculate that the information contained in that database validated Mondex’s claim of an act of plunder perpetrated against the Lindenbaum/Lindon family for the painting in question.  Incidentally, the ERR database was not publicly accessible in 2008. Hence, Christie’s could not have consulted it. The few art looting databases in existence at the time would have been short on specifics regarding the Lindon losses or were proprietary databases whose content is impossible to verify for accuracy and reliability.

Mr. Palmer stepped up his attack against Christie’s by stating that “buying from auction houses presents significant risks” going as far as asserting that the “auction house should indemnify” the buyer “if a claim is ever made in the future,” that is to say, if the evidence of theft escaped the research efforts of the auction house prior to sale.  In other words, the behavior of Mr. Dreyfus appears to echo the Mondex stance against Christie’s and, more generally, against all auction houses.

However, Nicholas O’Donnell, an art restitution attorney based in Boston, Massachusetts, countered that there was no indication of any suspicion regarding the painting on the face of the provenance that Christie’s was given for the Sisley work, a view that James Palmer, of Mondex, contests. According to a New York Times report dated June 3, 2018, Palmer notified Monica Dugot, director of restitution at Christie’s that a review of a “directory of looted items published in France in 1947” would have yielded several looted Sisley works with the word “spring” in their title.  The "directory" which Mr. Palmer has alluded to is the "Répertoire des biens spoliés” which can be downloaded from a French government website.

In sum, the fight over the Lindon Sisley painting has turned into an unfortunate mess with an auction house, Christie’s, caught between a determined “art recovery business”, Mondex, an incensed art dealer, Mr. Alain Dreyfus, and a claimant, Mr. Denis Lindon, all convinced that Christie’s did not exercise sufficient due diligence to identify a looted work of art belonging to the Lindon family.

The fact that all guns are pointed at Christie’s in a very complex game of who should have known what and when regarding the flawed ownership history of “Premier jour de printemps à Moret,” by Alfred Sisley, begs for clarification and a more sober examination of the facts.

As the old saw goes, “the facts, nothing but the facts.” In Part II, let’s take a look at the hard facts and ask another set of questions which might put this entire kerfuffle into perspective. Indeed, there is a looted painting that needs to be restituted to the Lindon family. But where did the problem originate and who stands to benefit from this international three-ring circus?