Nazi-looted El Greco painting to sell Christie’s after return to heirs –

Three Old Master paintings looted during World War II, including an old El Greco, will be auctioned at the Old Masters Evening Sale at Christie’s in London on December 7. All the paintings were once owned by Julius and Camilla Priester; the couple’s heirs received the works in recent years, more than seven decades after the paintings were seized by the Nazis.

Julius Priester was an Austrian Jewish industrialist who amassed his wealth in the oil and energy business. He and his wife assembled a collection of over 80 Old Master paintings which included works by Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck and Frans Hals. In an interview, Christie’s Old Masters manager in London, Henry Pettifer, described Priester as “a true connoisseur collector”.

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El Greco, titled Portrait of a Gentleman (1570), depicts a guardian dressed in black facing the viewer. It is expected to fetch between £800,000 and £1.2 million ($690,000 and $1.7 million). Also up for auction are a trompe-l’oeil church interior painted by the Dutch painter Emmanuel de Witte and a late 15th or early 16th century portrait attributed to the Master of Frankfurt. These paintings will be offered at estimates of £500,000-800,000 ($690,000-$1.1 million) and £40,000-60,000 ($55,000-$82,000), respectively.

As the persecution of Jews in Europe began to escalate before the war, the priests fled to Paris in 1938 and landed in Mexico two years later. In 1944, the priest’s house and art collection in Vienna were seized by the Nazis. After years in refuge, Priester made numerous attempts to recover his stolen collection before his death in 1955. His wife and descendants continued these efforts in the decades that followed.

El Greco was returned to Priester’s family through the efforts of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe (CLAE), who noticed the artwork in an online advertisement by a New York dealer. Prior to his return, the painting’s wartime provenance was concealed and it remained in an Italian collection for four decades. It was then traded on the market between New York and London. After the painting returned in 2015, it was exhibited in a 2019 exhibition dedicated to showing El Greco’s influence on modern portraiture at the Grand Palais in Paris.

El Greco produced the painting early in his career, between sojourns in Venice and Rome, and before doing the intense religious scenes for which he is best known. “It sheds light on the beginnings of El Greco’s painting in the Venetian idiom, before he became the artist everyone knew so well before arriving in Spain,” Pettifer said.

Julius Priester Vienna home

El Greco Portrait of a Gentleman hanging in the house of Julius Priester in Vienna, 1938.
Courtesy Commission for Looted Art in Europe

Portrait of a Gentleman is likely to fetch a modest sum compared to other works by El Greco. El Greco’s most expensive painting to date, of Saint Dominic kneeling, sold for $13.9 million at Sotheby’s London in 2013.

Witte’s painting was returned in 2019 from a private Austrian collection, where it had resided for several decades. It shows a meticulous view of the Oude Kerk church in Amsterdam from the west end of the nave; a green curtain partially obstructs his view. According to Pettifer, it is one of only five church interiors using the trompe-l’oeil device for which de Witte is known; all the remaining four are in museum collections. The Frankfurt Master’s painting features an unknown sitter, although the subject’s dress and the Antwerp artist’s connection to Emperor Maximilian I of the Habsburgs suggest he was a member of the royal court of the Netherlands. In 2006 the painting was offered for sale by a private collector in Paris at Christie’s London, where it was identified by the Commission for Looted Art in Europe as having been looted. It was returned to the heirs the same year.

In the years following the war, the two paintings were part of a group of works that Priester sought to recover through various legal channels in Europe. They were among 17 works that Priester listed in a bulletin issued by the Austrian Federal Police as he attempted to recover his art treasure.

Emmanuel DeWitt,

Emanuel de Witte, Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, with a trompe l’oeil curtain, 1655.

Other works looted from Priester’s collection have been recovered. In 2004, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond returned the work of Corneille de Lyon Portrait of Jean d’Albon (1539) to the heirs of Priester. Works that still remain loose include portraits by Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, as well as a work by 15th-century Italian painter Moretto da Brescia which is in an Italian museum.

According to Anne Webber, co-president of CLAE, these three restored paintings appeared in the right place at the right time. “It is fortunate that these three paintings have all reappeared via Austria and the UK, where there is more commitment to restitution,” Webber said, adding that the commission’s efforts to returning other looted works from the Priester collection still faces challenges. “It is very concerning that today, 23 years after 44 governments, including Italy, accepted the Washington Principles, there are still so few countries willing to guarantee that art looted by the Nazis returns to its rightful owners.”

About Catharine C. Bean

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