Heir to art collector Jules Strauss forced to sell painting taken by Nazis

The great-granddaughter of Jules Strauss, a Jewish art collector who lost property to the Nazis in Paris during World War II, is to sell one of her paintings she salvaged from a German museum more early this year.

Pauline Baer de Pérignon has tracked down an 18th-century French masterpiece by Nicolas de Largillière in the Dresden state art collections and unearthed archival evidence to prove Strauss was forced to sell it. But now she has to sell it because 20 heirs are entitled to a share of it.

On January 27, Sotheby’s New York will auction the “Portrait of a Woman in Pomone”, painted between 1710 and 1714, when Largillière was at the height of his powers. It is estimated to be around £1million.

The French-born artist had moved to England in 1675, where he worked with Sir Peter Lely, and his portraits are in the world’s most important public collections, including the National Gallery in London.

Ms Baer de Pérignon told The Telegraph that briefly regaining this rare tangible connection to her great-grandfather made the sale particularly painful: “If I had had enough money to buy it back, I would would have done, but justice was done with the recovery of the paint.

Tracking him down and learning of Strauss’ wartime plight inspired her to write a book, titled The Vanished Collection, which Head of Zeus in the UK will publish in February.

The search had been difficult as she knew next to nothing about him or his collection, which the family just assumed he had sold. It wasn’t until 2014 that her interest was sparked by a relative’s suggestion that the Nazis had “robbed” her.

Strauss, a Frankfurt-born banker, spent his adult life in France, building up an extraordinary collection, ranging from antiques to Impressionists, some of which were stolen or forcibly sold by the Nazis. His Paris home was also requisitioned, but he somehow avoided deportation before dying of poor health in 1943.

His great-granddaughter will discover that the portrait of Largillière was acquired in 1941 for the German Reichsbank in Berlin and transferred to the Ministry of Finance to finally go to Dresden in 1959.

In her book, she details the detective work, the research of archives, the constitution of a file of documentary evidence: “The more I advanced in my investigation, the more I realized how unlikely it was that Jules could have prevent his collection from being seized by the Nazis…Even before the invasion of France, the Germans had drawn up a list of the main French collections.

She recounts the “total astonishment” to discover the words “Jules Strauss Collection” next to Largillière’s list in the German Foundation for Lost Art, and to go to Dresden, to find that the director of the museum was not “not eager to return it”. “His questions remain etched in my memory… ‘Perhaps Mr. Strauss was happy to have sold his painting for a decent price?’ he said… The cynical remark reminded me of an opening scene in Joseph Losey’s 1976 film Monsieur Klein, in which Alain Delon plays an art dealer whose war business is to buy back the property of Jews forced to to flee.

“It’s pretty easy to buy from someone who has no choice but to sell,” one of his clients tells Klein. “I don’t have to buy from you,” the merchant replies acerbically. I calmly reminded the museum director of the anti-Jewish laws of October 1940, the blocked bank accounts, the Aryanized businesses.

She added that what followed was “a tense and difficult discussion” and “it took four years to recover it”: “We had to justify our case and provide proof that the painting belonged to the family and had stolen by the Nazis”.

Dresden eventually agreed it was a forced sale, and in January returned the portrait from its Old Masters Picture Gallery.

Sotheby’s described the painting as a tour de force that shows the artist’s unparalleled ability to capture prominent members of Parisian society with elegance and beauty.

The sitter is believed to be Marie Madeleine de La Vieuville, Marquise de Parabère, mistress of Philip II, Duke of Orléans then Regent of France. Largillière often depicts her clients as allegorical figures and she is portrayed as Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and abundance.

Calvine Harvey, Specialist in the Old Masters Department at Sotheby’s, New York, said: “The painting is a true masterpiece… For us it is an absolute honor to be able to offer this and tell the world about… Strauss, to promote his legacy. and sadly tell some of the stories of the injustices that happened to him.

The Dresden State Art Collections said: ‘Research into this complex case has been extensive and thorough, as is necessary to ensure that a work of art is returned to its rightful owner.’

Norma D. Ross