By Sarah Gordon, Esq.
On February 5, 2014, Sotheby’s London will auction Camille Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre, matinee de printempts (Boulevard Montmartre), formerly in the Silberberg collection. In 1935, German Jewish industrialist and world-renowned art collector, Max Silberberg, was forced to sell this painting at auction in Berlin. In 1999, his daughter-in-law and sole heir, Gerta Silberberg, found the work hanging in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The Israel Museum transferred title to Gerta Silberberg in 2000. In a symbolic gesture, Mrs. Silberberg loaned the painting to the Israel Museum, where it remained on display for the remainder of her life.
According to Sotheby’s, this painting is “one of the most important Impressionist masterworks to come to auction in the last decade.” The upcoming auction raises compelling questions regarding the future of restituting Holocaust era loot. (Sotheby’s. Press Office. One of The Most Important Impressionist Paintings to Come to Auction in the Last Decade Will Be Offered in Sotheby’s February 2014 Impressionist Modern Art Evening Sale. Sotheby’s London, 23 Dec. 2013. Web. 27 Dec. 2013. .; Bazyler, Michael J. Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in America’s Courts. New York: New York UP, 2003. 205.)
In a Press Release dated December 23, 2013, Sotheby’s underscores the artistic and historical significance as well as the compelling provenance of the Boulevard Montmartre. Max Silberberg’s collection of works, including pieces by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Cezanne and van Gogh, was well published and exhibited around the world up through 1933. By 1935, Max Silberberg had become victim to the Third Reich’s antiemetic laws. After his company was Aryanised and sold and his home was acquired by the SS, Silberberg was compelled to consign most of his collection at a series of auctions at Paul Graupe’s auction house in Berlin in 1935 and 1936 (including Boulevard Montmartre). While Silberberg’s son, Alfred, fled to England after brief internment at Buchenwald, Max Silberberg and his wife were eventually deported to Theresienstadt and then Auschwitz in 1942, where they both perished. (Sotheby’s Press Office, 23 Dec. 2013; Bazyler, Holocaust Justice, 205.)
After Alfred Silberberg’s death, his wife, Gerta, became the sole surviving heir to Max Silberberg’s estate, taking up the difficult but at times successful search for his lost art collection. For example, she was the first British relative of a Holocaust victim to recover a work of art under the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-looted art. The piece, Van Gogh’s, L’Olivette (Les Baux), Olive groces with Les Alpilles in the background (L’Olivette), was restituted to Gerta Silberberg from the National Gallery of Berlin in 1999. Shortly thereafter, she sold the L’Olivette at auction at Sotheby’s in December 1999 for 5.3 million pounds. Mrs. Silberberg used the proceeds from that Sotheby’s auction to fund her ongoing search for further works of art that belonged to her father-in-law. The new owner of L’Olivette gifted the work to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
In anticipation of the February sale, Sotheby’s issued a Cataloguing preview detailing the complete provenance of Boulevard Montmartre. After it was sold under duress at the Paul Graupe auction house in Berlin on March 23, 1935, Boulevard Montmartre passed through a number of hands, including the famous Knoedler & Co. gallery, which acquired the piece on November 9, 1959. Knoedler eventually sold the painting to John and Frances L. Loeb on January 4, 1960, who thereafter donated the work to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 1997, where it remained even after it was restituted to Gerta Silberberg on February 1, 2000, thanks to Mrs. Silberberg’s generous loan.
With Mrs. Silberberg’s passing in early 2013, Boulevard Montmartre s now up for auction at Sotheby’s with an estimated value of seven to ten million pounds. (Sotheby’s. Cataloguing Preview, Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale (L14002). London: Sotheby’s, 2014. Print.) The auction of Boulevard Montmartre raises important questions about the future of Holocaust restitution. How do we balance the goals of financial retribution to individual victims with the need for public access to cultural property? The sale of Boulevard Montmartre is an example of how these two goals might conflict.
On the one hand, this sale will redress theft on an individual level. On the other hand, a piece of Jewish cultural heritage is at risk of being lost to a private owner’s hands unless its purchaser donates it to a public institution. While on display in the Israel Museum, this piece served as a symbol of many things to its viewers. For example, to Holocaust survivors and their families, coming to view the painting in Jerusalem evoked images of closure and new beginnings after the unjustified displacement of not only property, but of the people to whom that property belonged. Yet, the piece is at risk of becoming part of a private collection where it can no longer serve as such a symbol. Further, the sale of this painting in the aftermath of Mrs. Silberberg’s death raises another difficult question – what is the future of restituting Holocaust era loot as a new generation is charged with the task? While the restitution of hundreds of works of art and property remains unaccomplished to date, there is an undeniable sense of urgency to complete restitution efforts while the rightful heirs are still able to pursue this goal.
As to the identity of the consignor (person or entity that inherited and is selling the Boulevard Montmartre), according to Mina Mitzi, Head of Sotheby’s London Press Office, “the painting is being sold to benefit people and causes close to Gerta [Silberberg’s] heart.” No further information is available from the Silberberg estate at this time.
One can only hope that the Silberberg estate will address this sale in a manner similar to how Mrs. Silberberg approached the restitution and sale of Van Gogh’s L’Olivette. In that case, the piece was displayed in a public space and the funds from its sale were used to continue the restitution of Max Silberberg’s lost art collection. As the painting heads for the auction’s block, may the soon-to-be new owner realize that the lot is not only precious but also encumbered with important history.
To view the full Sotheby’s Press Release on Boulevard Montmartre, click here. Further, to view a Cataloguing Preview that documents the complete provenance of the work, click here. Sotheby’s. Press Office. One of The Most Important Impressionist Paintings to Come to Auction in the Last Decade Will Be Offered in Sotheby’s February 2014 Impressionist Modern Art Evening Sale. Sotheby’s London, 23 Dec. 2013. Web. 27 Dec. 2013. . Bazyler, Michael J. Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in America’s Courts. New York: New York UP, 2003. 205.; Sotheby’s Press Office. 27 Dec 2013. Sotheby’s. Cataloguing Preview, Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale (L14002). London: Sotheby’s, 2014. Print.