An increasingly more significant source of consignments for today’s leading international salerooms is what is loosely referred to as ‘war art’. These are works of art that were looted between 1933 and 1948 primarily by the Nazis but also the Red Army which have been discovered and returned to their rightful heirs. The heirs then, in turn, decide to sell the pieces through auction, usually in order to share the restitution proceeds amicably among siblings, or out of fear of further theft or damage, or because the insurance premiums are just too high. Some works have been sold as an amicable solution to a potentially costly legal battle between the current owner of a painting and its legitimate owner. Rather than battling out the ownership in a court of law the two parties agree to sell the work at auction and divide the proceeds.
How big a market is this? Since 1996 Sotheby’s and Christie’s alone have sold around $300 million worth between them, and this is viewed as just a fraction of the real market potential. Most of the works are Old Masters, Impressionists and early 20th century moderns, and prove particularly appealing to collectors due to their market freshness. One cannot overlook, however, the appeal to be found in both the notoriety and provenance the piece carries with it.
So important has this source of works become for the major rooms that both companies have opened specialty departments exclusively to deal with this war art. Sotheby’s took the lead in 2000 by announcing Lucian Simmons as worldwide director of restitution. Christie’s have just jumped aboard with the appointment of Monica Dugout.
How do the auction rooms discover these works? One source is an extensive data base that includes suspect names, such as victims of looting, known Nazis, collaborationist art dealers, etc. If any of these names or keywords appears in a provenance they are red-flagged for further research.
To date the largest single sale of restituted art was the Rothschild Collection which Christie’s sold in 1999 for $90 million US, while the top price for a piece of restituted art is $22.4 million US paid for Leger’s La femme en rouge vert, again sold at Christies in 2003.