Two of the works by Camille Pissarro and Paul Signac had previously been in Paris’ Musée d’Orsay.
The third picture, another Signac, had entered the collection of the notorious dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. One of the many works of ‘degenerate art’ that he acquired in Nazi-occupied France, it was among the extraordinary hoard of 1406 works discovered by authorities in the Munich apartment of his son Cornelius Gurlitt in 2012.
The three recovered works were originally owned by the Jewish businessman and property developer Gaston Lévy who co-founded what would become the Monoprix supermarket chain in France.
A major collector of Impressionist and Modern art in the 1920-30s, he built up a museum-quality collection of over 100 paintings. Important pieces included Amedeo Modigliani's (1884-1920) sculpture Tête that set an artist’s record and a record for any work sold in France when it made €38.5m (£33.5m) at Christie's in Paris in 2010.
Lévy and his family lived in a magnificent apartment on Paris’ Avenue de Friedland, which he filled with books, pictures and works of art, many of which he bought from the leading dealers of the day including Bernheim-Jeune, Paul Durand-Ruel and Ambroise Vollard.
Other works were kept in his country home, the Château des Bouffards – Napoleon III's former hunting lodge in central France.
Appropriation and restitution
After the Nazis occupied France in the summer of 1940, Lévy’s art collection was appropriated and dispersed. He survived the war by fleeing to Tunisia, living in Egypt and then Italy until the end of the war.
By October 1940, two of the works that have now been consigned to Sotheby’s ended up with the Einsatztab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (a Nazi taskforce involved in handling cultural property).
One of them was Camille Pissarro’s (1830-1903) Gelée blanche, jeune paysanne faisant du feu, an 1888 oil on canvas that Sotheby’s has billed as “ranking among the greatest examples of Pointillism ever created”. It is estimated at £8m-12m.
The other was Paul Signac’s (1863-1935) La Corne d’Or, Matin, one of 12 paintings the artist made in Istanbul in the spring of 1907. It is estimated at £5m-7m.
After the war, these works were among the large number of paintings and works of art repatriated to the French state. They later entered the Musée d’Orsay and, although they remained in the museum for many years and had been widely exhibited at international institutions, they were only returned to the Lévy heirs by the French government last year. Lévy died in 1977.
In January last year, a claim was filed on behalf of two of Lévy’s grandchildren over another Pointillist picture – Henri-Edmond Cross’ (1856-1910) Regatta in Venice which was on loan to an exhibition in Germany from the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The US museum has since countered the claim saying it “stands by its ownership” of the work.
Friendship with Signac
A major patron of the Pointillists, Lévy owned no fewer than 44 works by Signac. Having formed a close friendship with the artist, Lévy holidayed with Signac and sponsored his project to paint 107 ports in France – securing his first pick from every batch of watercolours.
The third work at Sotheby’s is an oil painting of the Quai de Clichy which is estimated £600,000-800,000.
It dates from 1887, the same year in which Signac was joined in his painting expeditions around Clichy by Vincent van Gogh, who depicted the same bridges that appear in the background of this composition.
Lévy had kept it in the Château des Bouffards but it later found its way into the collection of Hildebrand Gurlitt. Having been discovered in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt in 2012, it was subsequently identified as having been looted by the Nazis and was restituted to the heirs of Gaston Lévy in July 2019.
The three works will be offered at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern art evening sale on February 4.