French masterpieces looted by the Nazis but recently returned to their former owner’s Jewish descendants are set to fetch £20m at auction in London next month.
Three neo-impressionist works by Camille Pissarro and Paul Signac were returned to the heirs of Jewish businessman and art collector Gaston Lévy, who was forced to flee Paris for Tunisia as the Nazis occupied France.
Two artworks later made their way back to France and were displayed in the Musée d’Orsay in the French capital, while the third, which was stolen from Lévy’s country home in the Loire Valley, turned up in the collection of Nazi German art historian Hildebrand Gurlitt, who traded in “degenerative art”.
Gurlitt amassed 1,500 works in the 1940s which he passed to his son, Cornelius, a recluse who hoarded them in rubbish-strewn Munich and Salzburg properties. They were discovered only by chance during a 2012 customs raid over unrelated matters.
Signac was friends with Levy and the paintings, which experts have described as “exceptional,” were handed back to Levy’s heirs in 2018. This is the first time they have come up for auction.
The most eagerly-anticipated sale is Pissarro’s Gelée blanche, jeune paysanne faisant du feu (White frost, young peasant building a fire), which took six months to complete and is expected to fetch up to £12m at a sale at Sotheby’s on 4 February.
Thomas Boyd-Bowman, a director at Sotheby’s impressionist and modern art department, said the painting was a “tour de force of light and colour” that “ranks among the greatest examples of Pointillism ever created”.
Pointillism is a branch of impressionism which used a technique whereby small dots of colour are applied to a canvas to form the image, and Boyd-Bowman said this particular painting showed “Pissarro at the peak of his technical brilliance”.
It was through his patronage of the Pointillists that Lévy formed a lifelong friendship with Signac, holidaying with him and sponsoring his project to paint 107 French ports, securing first pick from every batch of watercolours. In total, Lévy owned 44 of Signac’s paintings.