Almost 75 years after a painting by the French master was spirited out of Nazi-occupied France, it has re-emerged at the National Gallery of Canada
OTTAWA — Seventy-three years after it was spirited out of Nazi-occupied France only to be seized by the British Royal Navy as suspected enemy property, a watercolour by Paul Cézanne has re-emerged at the centre of a capital mystery.
It dwells in a vault in the gallery’s curatorial wing, the last remnant of a staggering collection of French art deposited in Ottawa for safekeeping during the Second World War. In the spring of 1949, the 600-odd works by Cézanne, Renoir, Gauguin, Degas, Picasso and others were returned to two rival European owners during a peculiar repatriation in downtown Ottawa.
The Cézanne landscape, Groupe d’arbres (c. 1890), was somehow left behind. Over the years, it slipped into a deep curatorial void. The authoritative 1983 catalogue raisonné of Cézanne’s watercolours says its whereabouts is “unknown.”
This week, responding to questions from the Citizen, the gallery acknowledged it has held the missing Cézanne all along.
“I have no idea why it was orphaned, but we’re kind of left with this mystery to resolve,” Marc Mayer, gallery director and CEO, said in an interview.
“It’s a very, very, very complicated file. This is probably the most mysterious of all the files that we have of things that are here (but) who we don’t know the owner of. We have never pretended to own it and we don’t pretend to own it. Until a rightful owner emerges, we just take care of it.”
Attempts over the decades to identify and locate possible heirs to the 1949 owners have failed, he said.
Yet in the years following the collection’s return to Europe, the rival parties each wrote to the gallery to say they were missing a painting.
One claimant, in fact, repeatedly said he appeared to be missing a Cézanne, though Groupe d’arbres was not specifically mentioned. His widow later wrote five letters to the gallery in search of the work.
Mayer said it is not clear how gallery officials at the time responded. “There are gaps in our knowledge.”
On at least one occasion, however, they replied that no Cézanne had been left at the gallery, according a timeline of events the gallery provided to the Citizen.
The gallery’s 1952 annual report offered a brief description about the collection’s wartime stay in Ottawa and a subsequent cross-Canada exhibit of some of the works.
But since the gallery does not own Groupe d’arbres, it has never listed it among its collection, put it on display or publicly noted its existence.
Mayer bristled at the suggestion the gallery has knowingly sat on the painting all these years.
“We’re not known for these kinds of dastardly doings. We have returned Nazi war loot before, we have returned spoliated things that the Chinese claimed were exported from China. That’s not how we build the national collection of Canada.
“All we know is that at some point, everybody just sort of ignored it. Then it re-emerges again in the 1960s and then it re-emerged again. It’s not that the museum made no effort, it’s just that the thing seems to have not interested anybody who was the rightful heir.
“This is just one of those things that we’re kind of stuck holding the bag here and, hopefully, we’ll be able to resolve it one day.”
There is no doubt the painting is a Cézanne, one of 645 watercolours he created. It is probably a scene from his native and beloved Provence. Like many of his works, it is unsigned.
And though it is unfinished and was quite possibly intended only as a preparatory work, “anything by Cézanne is of significance,” said Mayer. “He’s a titan in the history of modern art.”
Another Cézanne watercolour not seen in public for 53 years re-emerged from a private collection in Texas last year and sold at auction for $19.1 million U.S.
Mayer said no value has been established for Groupe d’arbres. It would surely fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction and that value will only escalate over time.
How the small-scale watercolour on paper became lost in Ottawa is fascinating tale.
In May or June 1940, as Hitler’s tanks and troops prepared to storm Paris, a shady Corsican and Parisian art broker, Martin Fabiani, shipped the glittering collection to Spain and then to Lisbon. Hundreds of works by a pantheon of modern French artists — Cézanne, Renoir, Picasso, Derain, Roualt, Daumier, Gauguin and others — were among the cargo, along with some rare books.
Fabiani’s reason for moving the collection is unclear. Wherever the Nazis invaded, so too did their ravenous Kunstraub (art theft) policy. But Fabiani, 40, appears to have allied himself with the Germans.
An archived 1945 Allied intelligence report from a U.S. commission for the protection and restitution of cultural materials described Fabiani as “one of the leading collaborationist dealers in Paris.”
There is, however, no doubt Fabiani legally acquired the 600-plus paintings and drawings in 1940 from Lucien Vollard of Paris. Vollard was the brother of Ambroise Vollard, an influential Parisian art dealer with a passion for the avant-garde.
Around the turn of the 19th century, Ambroise Vollard’s incredibly keen eye for undiscovered talent was drawn to the then little-known Cézanne (1839-1906) and several artists who became leading painters of the modern era.
Vollard in 1895 organized Cézanne’s first solo exhibition that helped catapult him to fame. It also established Vollard as the exclusive dealer for Cézanne’s works.
He amassed a spectacular collection of impressionist and post-impressionist French art. At the time of his 1939 death in a car accident near Paris, thousands of unframed canvasses of works by the era’s great French masters reportedly filled all but two rooms of his home.
In addition to his brother Lucien, Vollard willed part of the collection to his mistress. Much of the famed Vollard Collection now resides in galleries and private collections around the world.
Fabiani was an associate of both Lucien and Ambroise Vollard and it is believed he purchased a share of the Vollard Collection from Lucien. The Vollards also had two aging sisters, Leontine and Jeanne, and another brother, Felix, in an asylum.
Word somehow spread in the summer of 1940 that Fabiani had moved the paintings out of France.
The British Admiralty was alerted and, around September 1940, learned Fabiani would be moving the collection to Bermuda aboard the U.S. ocean liner S. S. Excalibur. (A month earlier, the same ship brought the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Hamilton, Bermuda, en route to wartime exile in the Bahamas.)
On Oct. 3, 1940, British naval officers and customs officials boarded the Excalibur when it docked in Bermuda. The ship’s captain, S.N. Groves, was forced to open the liner’s safe where the paintings were stowed in four wooden crates. The cargo was address to the Bignou Gallery in New York.
A file on Fabiani at Library and Archives Canada contains a 1949 letter to the former Office of the Custodian of Enemy Property from a Montreal lawyer representing the Vollard sisters.
Thomas Vien, a former Liberal MP and then senator, wrote that at the time of the seizure it was suspected that Fabiani’s share of the Vollard Collection was being “shipped to South America to be hidden there,” presumably as spoils of war or to sell and finance the German war effort.
Days after the collection was confiscated, British minister of economic warfare Hugh Dalton rose in the Commons and announced, “it is the policy of His Majesty’s Government to take all practicable measures to prevent the acquisition of foreign exchange by the enemy.
“An important means to this end is the prevention, wherever possible, of exports from all enemy or enemy controlled territories including unoccupied France.”
Because of Bermuda’s humidity, Dalton said the art needed to moved to a more equable climate. A month later, the cargo was ordered to the National Gallery of Canada under the supervision of the Exchequer Court of Canada acting for the Admiralty Marshall of England.
For the next eight and a half years, the Vollard Collection sat in storage inside the Victoria Museum Building on McLeod Street, then home to the gallery (and now the Canadian Museum of Nature).
Meanwhile, four months after the Germans surrendered in May 1945, Fabiani was reportedly arrested in Paris and fined for collaborating with the enemy and dealing in Nazi-looted art. He was hit with a fine equivalent to almost $1 million.
In February 1948, Fabiani applied to Canada to have the collection released to him. He was advised he would first need approval from a British court. An inventory he prepared claimed there were 698 objects owing, mostly paintings and drawings, plus some rare books.
On April 29, 1949, the High Court of Justice of Great Britain Admiralty Division endorsed the earlier ruling of a French court and ordered the collection in Ottawa be divided and returned, with one-quarter going to the Vollard sisters and three-quarters to Fabiani. It is not clear whether the ruling was intended to punish Fabiani for his wartime association with the Germans.
One month later, on May 30, 1949, the two sides met at the gallery in Ottawa. The atmosphere appears to have been tense, if not hostile.
The Vollard sisters, who had no children, were represented by Edouard Jonas, an art specialist and former French parliamentarian. (It was Jonas, and later his widow, who would repeatedly write to the gallery inquiring about a lost Cézanne. It is unknown whether he was acting for the Vollard sisters at the time.)
The crates of unframed canvasses, drawings and watercolours were opened and divided accordingly between Fabiani and Jonas. It’s believed many of the works were later sold.
The Vollard sisters, before their deaths, sold two Cézanne paintings, Portrait de paysan (c. 1900) and Foret (c. 1902-1904) and a Degas pastel, Chevaux de courses (c. 1895-1899), to the gallery in October 1950. All three came from the Vollard Collection.
Fabiani, too, rewarded the gallery in 1956 with the gift of a Renoir from his share of the collection, the beautiful sketch, Femme et enfant (Gabrielle et Jean, c. 1895).
Any potential heirs claiming title to the lost Cézanne would have to demonstrate that they are the rightful owners to the exclusion of anyone else, said Mayer.
“If you give something to the wrong person then you can be very easily sued by the rightful owners or a wrongful owner who feels he has a compelling case to be a rightful owner.
“So you really have to do your due diligence to make sure that whoever claims to own something, that they are actually the owner.”
But, “if the rightful heir emerges from the publication of (this) article, that would be great.”
Acknowledgments and additional sources:
Paul Cézanne, The Watercolours, A Catalogue Raisonné, by John Rewald, Little Brown and Company, 1983.
Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde, Yale University Press, 2006.
Martin Fabiani file, Library and Archives Canada. RG 117, vol 2582.
Paintings from the Vollard Collection, by Lionello Venturi, National Gallery of Canada, 1950.
Art Digest, Oct. 15, 1940, p. 6.
British Hansard, Oct. 15, 1940, vol 365 cc576-7
Inter-Allied Commission for the Protection and Restitution of Cultural Materials (the Vaucher Commission), July 16, 1945.