On 21st March this year a claim was filed against Sotheby’s auction house for refusing to refund a buyer his money when it transpired that the eighteenth century French old master painting he bought for $57,600 was once owned by Hermann Goering and was now worthless.

Mr Steven Brooks bought the Louis-Michel van Loo painting called Allegorical Portrait of a Lady as Diana wounded by Cupid in 2004 from Sotheby’s New York in 2004.

Mr Brooks only discovered the history of the painting when he sought to sell the painting in auction at Christie’s in 2010.

When Christie’s did the provenance check they found that it was bought by Goering in 1939. Hermann Goering was a leading member of the Nazi Party, founder of the Gestapo, Commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe and designated successor of Hitler. He was also a convicted war criminal of crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials.

This discovery meant that there was now a cloud over the title of the painting, the particular gaps identified in the provenance covered the period between 1906 and 1939.

Goering had taken an active part in the acquisition of artwork and property that had been confiscated from Jewish families that had been victims of the Holocaust.

This factor, no doubt raised the important issue of whether or not this could be looted art, as many artworks were taken from Jewish families between 1933 and 1945. Christie’s having discovered this piece of the painting’s history were then unwilling to take the painting on consignment.

Mr Brooks returned to Sotheby’s in order to try to sell the painting with them. Sotheby’s having then done further provenance checks, were now also unwilling to sell the painting as they could not be sure of good title and were also unwilling to pay Mr Brooks a refund.

Mr Brooks is now suing Sotheby’s for failing to undertake proper provenance checks in the first place and it is being argued that had they done adequate due diligence checks he would not have made the purchase. Mr Brooks asserts that he now possesses a painting that is now worthless because of the Goering connection.

As reported in The Art Newspaper, Mr Brooks lawyers, Thomas LoSavio of Low Ball & Lynch believe that this case could address “the responsibility of a major auction house with respect to knowing what it sells before it sells” and if “collectors can have an expectation of minimal due diligence  prior to [such auction houses] putting a work on the market.”

It is reported that when Sotheby’s originally sold this painting the gap in the provenance was identified in the auction catalogue. It seems therefore, that what was not communicated to potential buyers was that Goering had once been the owner.

A very curious aspect of this case is that no restitution claims have been made regarding the title of the painting. Mr Brooks is therefore working on an assumption that it could be looted art and therefore subject to potential claims to ownership in the future. However it could just be the case that it is not looted art at all.

In restitution claims, usually there is a potential claimant asserting their claim to title in the painting. Furthermore, in a restitution claim, one would expect there to be some evidence that the artwork was either forcibly sold or stolen.

Whilst not all potential claimants would have necessarily registered their interests in the looted art that belongs to them, there are mechanisms by which a claim can be registered and can therefore be checked. The Art Loss Register is the largest database for stolen artwork. The International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) is a not-for-profit educational and research organisation that helps provide information to facilitate restitution. In the UK there is the Spoliation Advisory Panel who advises the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on such claims.

A further curious factor is that Mr Brooks is assuming that the painting is now worthless.

Whilst the gap in provenance may be problematic for this painting, it may not necessarily be fatal as to whether or not this artwork can or cannot be sold. There may be art dealers who are willing and able to sell this painting. Also, who is to say the painting is worthless because Goering once owned it? The market will surely decide this matter?

Whilst Goering was a key figure in the confiscation process, the Nazis stole, took under duress and forced sales of thousands of art objects. Goering had over 2000 artworks in his own collection, including 300 paintings.

Can it really be said that artwork becomes tainted by the very fact that it came into the hands of the Nazis?

It may be that the painting’s history might not bother some art collectors. It should be noted that van Loo is a very well known artist and the painting in question is very beautiful. Van Loo became court painter to Philip V, King of Spain  in Madrid.  After the painter returned to Paris in 1753, he painted many portraits of Louis XV of France.  Van Loo paintings can be found in world museums, such as the Louvre, the Hermitage and the Wallace Collection.

It may even be the case that its dark past may enhance the value of the painting. I leave you with this controversial thought – will this painting now become more famous because of its previous owner? Will it become known as the Goering Van Loos?

It will be interesting to see whether this claim will succeed. However I suspect that Sotheby’s will vigorously defend this claim as it is not at all certain that this painting is now valueless.

Watch this space for more articles on provenance.

Please also see some of my other blog posts on restitution:

German Restitution case

Wind of Change – Part 1: Restitution, France

Wind of Change – Part 2: Canada’s restitution project

Wind of Change – Part 3: Don’t look back. Dallas returns Orpheus to Turkey