French Court Orders Musée d’Orsay to Return Impressionist Paintings Illegally Sold During World War II

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French Court Orders Musée d’Orsay to Return Impressionist Paintings Illegally Sold During World War II

In February, after a decade-long legal dispute, a French court ordered the Musée d’Orsay in Paris to return a group of Impressionist paintings that were determined to have been illegally sold in Germany during WWII following the death of their original owner, the French art dealer Ambroise Vollard.

The legal title of two pieces by Pierre-Auguste Renoir—Marine Guernsey (1883) Judgment of Paris (1908)—Paul Cézanne’s Undergrowth (1890-1892) and Paul Gauguin’s Still life with mandolin (1885) have been transferred to Vollard’s heirs.

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The four works are now slated to be sold at auction next month—a common outcome for restitution settlements, where the funds raised from public sales of artworks are split among legal heirs, who share ownership.

The Gauguin, which carries the highest estimate of the grouping, is expected to sell for a price between $10 million and $15 million. The remaining three works are valued at prices between $250,000 and $1.5 million. The works will be put up for sale at Sotheby’s in Paris on May 16.

After his abrupt death in 1939 at the age of 73, Vollard’s estate became embroiled in controversy after evidence came to light that some works in his 6,000-item collection had been improperly distributed by his relatives. (Exact records for the sale history of the four works is unclear.)

His brother, Lucien Vollard, who was appointed as the estate’s executor, sold works from the estate collection together with his liaisons—Étienne Bignou and Martin Fabiani—who sold works to German museums, dealers and Nazi officers. Bignou and Fabiani were later implicated in financial frauds.

Vollard’s heirs, who filed a lawsuit against the Paris museum in 2013, argued that Lucien’s business ties to Nazi officials makes the sales of these artworks null, regardless of whether the dealing was made under duress. The heirs are still seeking the return of three paintings once owned by Vollard that still reside in the Musée d’Orsay.

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