An office in rue Boissonade, in the shade of the Montparnasse tower, in Paris, Pauline Baer de Perignon taps on her keyboard. In this year 2016, the quadra, writing coach, goes back in time in search of works that belonged to his great-grandfather, Jules Strauss, Jewish collector despoiled under the Occupation and died in 1943, in Paris, at the age of 82. . “Without method, but with uttermost”, recognizes this mischievous redhead, the youngest of a family of acrobats – her eldest, Julien, is a singer and we no longer present Edouard, actor and radio man.
It was then that when we came back “Collection Jules Strauss” on the German looted art site Lostart.de, she sees the Portrait of a Lady in Pomona by Nicolas de Largillière (1656-1746), kept at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden. The notice specifies that the painting, of which we do not know when it was painted, was acquired in 1928 by Jules Strauss and then found in 1953 in a safe at the German Central Bank. Between the two dates, the mystery remains.
To reconstruct the trajectory of the work, Pauline Baer crosses the data, those collected in various archives and the information annotated in the yellow notebooks of her ancestor. Jules Strauss indicates that he sold it for 400,000 francs in 1941. The first anti-Jewish laws having been promulgated in October 1940, it could be a forced sale. We still have to prove it. From her research, she pulls a book, The Vanished Collection (Stock), published in September 2020. A few months later, in January 2021, after three years of negotiations conducted with the help of her cousin Andrew Strauss, she obtained the restitution of the precious portrait.
Thousands of works never returned
To carry out this quest, Pauline Baer worked as the researchers of provenance, these experts in art history who track down looted goods. For this, she relied on the experience of two women whose profession it is, Emmanuelle Polack and Elizabeth Royer-Grimblat. The first contributed to the return by Germany of three works to the heirs of the Jewish lawyer Armand Isaac Dorville, in January 2020.
Without the sagacity of the second, Picking peas (1887), by Camille Pissarro, returned the same year to its owners, would still be hung in the chic interior of American collectors who had bought it without knowing the history of its spoliation. Another recent example to credit these experts: the painting by Gustav Klimt, Roses under the trees (around 1905), would not have left the Musée d’Orsay in March to be returned to the beneficiaries of a despoiled Jewish family without the painstaking work of Austrian researcher Ruth Pleyer.
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