The Difficulty of Nazi Spoliation Research

Camille Pissarro’s Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps (pictured), was owned by a Jewish book publisher in 1938 in Austria. When he fled Austria, the work was lost. A history professor, Jonathan Petropoulos has been involved in attempts to return the works to the descendants.

Last week, Elise Viebeck a student reporter at Claremont McKenna College reported that Petropoulos will resign as director of the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights.

Yesterday Mike Boehm a LA Times Staff Writer picked up the story as well.

The descendant, Gisela Bermann Fischer, has accused Petropoulos of trying to extort 18% of the work’s value as payment for “facilitating” its return. It seems Petropoulos hoped to end controversy and spare the Holocaust center and Claremont McKenna College any more distraction. It seems his involvement may be more than a mere “distraction” as Swiss authorities are holding the painting as evidence in an ongoing German investigation into possible extortion by Petropoulos and a German art dealer, Peter Griebert. The LA Times Story has the details according to Petropoulos:

Petropoulos said he got involved at the behest of Fischer and the Art Loss Register, a London-based company that keeps a database of stolen art and in some cases helps to get it back.

In December 2006, he said, he met in Munich with Griebert, whom he knew as an art-business associate of Lohse. Griebert, the professor said, was now apparently angry with the ex-Nazi. Petropoulos said Griebert told him about papers he’d found showing that Lohse had sold the Pissarro in 1957 to a man who bequeathed it to a foundation in Lichtenstein.

Working for what he said was his customary consultant’s fee of $350 an hour plus expenses, Petropoulos said he reported the news to his client, the Art Loss Register, which was then negotiating a contract with Fischer to recover the painting. The professor said he did more sleuthing on his own, with a view to recovering the Pissarro and gathering material for a book.

In late January 2007, he said, he viewed, authenticated and photographed the painting in the conference room of a Zurich bank. He also said he dined with Fischer and Griebert later that day and that they reached a deal: Fischer, who’d had a falling out with the Art Loss Register, would sell the Pissarro at Christie’s in New York and Griebert would get his customary 10% art dealer’s fee.

Both Julian Radcliffe and prominent restitution attorney E. Randol Schoenberg are quoted as saying Petropolous got himself too involved in the negotiations to return the work, rather than simply do the research for the fee which had been agreed upon. The seems to have been a miscommunication at some point, and the “champagne” agreement that Petropolous thought he was entitled to rely upon was it seems not reduced to writing, and in return Petropolous refused perhaps to continue to bring the parties together.

The ultimate issue I suppose is what kind of compensation these kinds of experts can and should claim. The lawyers involved, and the Art Loss Register all take a healthy commission; and Petropolous certainly seems to have been amply compensated for his time at $350/hour. Though there may be powerful historical, legal and ethical arguments compelling the restitution of these Nazi spoliated works, we should perhaps bear in mind that it is the very large sums of money they fetch at acution which is driving these restitution efforts.

Related Posts:

Dividing a Nazi Art Dealer’s Collection

Compensation for Restitution Experts

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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