Fifteen heirs to a German art-collecting couple are now suing for ownership of a Camille Pissarro painting, valued at around $500,000 to $1 million dollars, according to artnews.com. The lawsuit, which was brought to the Federal District Court in Atlanta, alleges that the painting was one of many works of art that was seized by the Nazis during World War II. In order to reclaim the work of art, the family must now comb through over 75 years of legal jargon and paperwork— in order to outline the history of possession that would point back to the original owners of the artwork.
The painting, entitled: The Anse des Pilotes, Le Havre, was apparently created in 1903— the year of the artist’s death. It depicts a gorgeous, early 20th-century harbor scene, in the delicate impressionist style which Pissarro was known for. It was one of the final works ever produced by the famous 19th century artist, and thus is considered highly valuable in the art world. The plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit include the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of famous German art collector Ludwick Kainer. However, the plaintiffs come from all over the world, including Florida, Chile, the Netherlands, and Australia— according to Art Insider.
Ludwick Kainer was prolific in the art collecting world prior to World War II, and at one point, he and his wife owned over 400 works of art. Kainer had bought the Pissarro painting from the painter’s son in 1904— following his father’s death. For the next three decades, the lawsuit alleges that the painting remained in Kainer’s possession. However, in 1932 Ludwick Kainer and his wife left Germany due to health problems, but decided never to return due to the rapid rise of the Nazi Party. In 1935, the Nazis seized all of the paintings in the collection (including the Pissarro) and auctioned off most of them. Following the war, the Kainers attempted to ask the French government for reparations, but nothing came of it. The couple later died in the 60s— and were never reunited with the stolen painting.
This lawsuit, which was filed over 85 years since the painting was stolen, shows that many families are still fighting to repair the wrongs inflicted by the Nazis generations ago. During the war, many Jewish families lost valuable artworks, and the work of recovering them has been ongoing and incredibly complicated. Approximately 20% of Europe’s art was stolen by the Nazis during World War II, a staggering number that will likely never be fully rectified. In 2012, the art world was shocked to discover over 1,280 works of stolen art hidden in a tiny, 1,000 square-foot apartment. The collection was valued at over a billion dollars, and included works from Picasso, Courbet, Daumier, and Renoir— according to Vanity Fair.
But recovering these works is only half the battle, and arguably the easier half. What comes next is a long, complicated legal battle over the rightful heirs of the stolen works, heirs that were likely born decades after the art was seized. In the case of the Kainer descendents, they are embroiled in a battle with the Horowitz family, who bought the painting in 1995. The Horowitzes allege to have been unaware that the painting was stolen, and believe that their foundation has the rightful claim to the art. While the painting was put on display from 2014 to 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia, the Horowitz family hid the painting once the Kainer descendents became aware of its location— and the Kainer’s are unable to locate it at this point.
In the end, I doubt that Pissarro necessarily wanted his painting to be hidden from the world, or to be the subject of a lengthy legal battle. But I also doubt that he wanted it to be stolen by a group of despot fascists in the first place. While highly intriguing, this story is one which should serve as a reminder of how close we are to our history. We are still unraveling the intergenerational traumas of World War II, traumas that manifest themselves in lengthy legal battles, and hidden collections of art tucked away in an unassuming apartment building. One thing is certain though, art is made to be seen, and the public deserves the opportunity to enjoy the painting— regardless of who is legally entitled to it.