Adriaen van der Werff, Sainte Marie-Madeleine pénitente”, 1707.
The heirs of a French banker have filed a lawsuit to recover an 18th-century Dutch painting that had been consigned for sale at Christie’s and was looted during World War II. A hearing in response to the suit is scheduled to take place on June 29 in a Parisian judicial court.
The painting at the center of the dispute, The Penitent Magdalene, was produced in 1707 by the Dutch artist Adriaen Van Der Werff and depicts the half-nude biblical figure in a seated pose. It was part of a collection of works owned by Lionel Hauser, a distant cousin of Marcel Proust who helped him with his finances until 1920.
During World War II, as his relatives were facing deportation by Nazi forces, Hauser fled to the south of France with his wife Jeanne in 1940. While displaced, he learned that his Parisian flat had been emptied by Nazi forces in 1942. Forty works are believed to have been taken from the residence.
According to an attorney representing six of Hauser’s heirs in the dispute, when the banker returned to Paris after Germany’s occupation of France, he registered the work as stolen property with French authorities. Unlike some of his family members, Hauser survived persecution and died in July 1958 in France.
Hauser’s descendants learned of the painting’s whereabouts in 2018, when they were alerted by a representative from Christie’s legal department that it had been consigned for sale by a British collector, whose identity has not been disclosed. (As a legal policy, auction houses alert rightful heirs of artworks believed to be the subject of restitution claims when conducting provenance research.)
The Hausers’ attorney, Charlotte Caron, told ARTnews that Christie’s attempted to facilitate a private mediation between the heirs and the current anonymous owner in order to reach a settlement agreement, offering for the proceeds from the sale to be divided evenly between the two parties. The current owner failed to come forward during the process, the dispute claims.
“We don’t know anything about him,” Caron said.
The work last sold at Christie’s in April 2005 for £60,000. At the time of the sale, the work’s cataloguing entry did not include any mention of Hauser’s prior ownership, the suit claims.
In 2019, Christie’s valued the work at an estimate of £30,000–£50,000 ($37,000–$61,000). The painting is currently being held in escrow at a Christie’s facility. The heirs notified Christie’s of their decision to pursue a restitution claim in July 2020.
In court documents reviewed by ARTnews, the heirs claim that after several exchanges with representatives at Christie’s European headquarters, Christie’s “refused” to return the work, citing a standard under U.K. law that protects the owner’s title after six years of its purchase without a claim ever having been made. They also failed to name the identity of the anonymous owner, claiming reasons related to confidentiality.
The heirs are challenging this claim based on a 1945 ordinance that widens jurisdiction and time limits for restitution claims. The suit claims that the current anonymous owner “must be considered as a bad faith possessor” under the postwar provision. Additionally, Christie’s alleged refusal to reveal the owner’s identity “demonstrates abusive retention,” causing “serious moral prejudice to the heirs of the victim of spoliation.”
In a statement, a representative for Christie’s said the house “is pleased to have been able to trace the Hauser heirs to bring this picture to their attention, and is sorry that they have chosen to pursue legal action.”