Priester family Vienna apartment
A photograph of the Priester family home in Vienna with the El Greco 'Portrait of a Gentleman' on display. Image credit: Courtesy of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe.

When Julius (1870-1955) and Camilla (1885-1962) Priester fled Nazi prosecution in Austria on the March 31, 1938, they were forced to leave behind all their belongings, including a huge collection (more than 80 pieces) of Old Masters and 19th century paintings.

As prolific Viennese art collectors, they also amassed an extensive group of tapestries, silver, decorative art and carpets.

While the Priester family were able to escape, landing in Mexico City in August 1940, all their property was confiscated by the Gestapo and removed from their shipping agent in February 1944.

Despite this, Julius Priester made an extensive effort to track down and recover the missing collection after the war; these efforts were continued by Camilla and his heirs after his death in 1955. Although, some pieces were successfully traced, the majority of the pieces remain missing to this day.

Hence, the importance of the Christie’s Old Master evening sale on December 7, in which three pieces that had been restituted to the Priester heirs during the 21st century were offered.

El Greco portrait

This early El Greco called 'Portrait of a Gentleman' (estimated £800,000-£1.2m) which was hammered down at £1m at Christie's on December 7.

The three artworks were an early El Greco called Portrait of a Gentleman (estimated £800,000-£1.2m) which was hammered down at £1m, an Emanuel de Witte’s Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam (est. £500,000-800,000) which took £400,000 and Portrait of a Man by the Netherlandish Master of Frankfurt (est. £40,000-60,000) which took a hammer price of £75,000  (or with fees: £1.22m, £50,000 and £93,750 respectively).

Emanuel de Witte’s 'Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam'

Emanuel de Witte’s 'Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam' (est. £500,000-800,000) sold for a hammer price of £400,000 at Christie's on December 7.

Anne Webber, the co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which represents the Priester heirs, has worked to help the family track down these works and others.

Portrait of a Gentleman

A 'Portrait of a Man' by the Netherlandish Master of Frankfurt (est. £40,000-60,000) took a hammer price of £75,000 at Christie's on December 7.

She said: “We’re pleased to have recovered these three works of art for the Priester heirs, each of them found in different countries and continents, reflecting how they were traded on the international market after they were looted.”

Christie’s assisted with the claim against the Netherlandish Master of Frankfurt work and helped reach an amicable conclusion with its former owner.

Henry Pettifer, head of Christie’s Old Masters department, added: “We are honoured to be acting on behalf of the heirs to the Julius and Camilla Priester Collection in the sale of these three fantastic paintings.”

By Rachel Fellman