Claremont Insider: Dispute Halts Pissarro Sale

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Dispute Halts Pissarro Sale

''Le Quai Malaquais et l’Institut'', 1903
Basler Zeitung image

The story of the Camille Pissarro painting we've been following took a strange twist in London yesterday. The painting, stolen from the family of Gisela Bermann-Fischer by the Nazis in 1938, was restituted to her and then placed for auction at Christie's Impressionist/Modern Evening Sale. The work was expected to fetch upwards of $2.46 million.

The Pissarro, which was the only piece in the auction that failed to sell [correction: of 44 lots offered, 30 sold. We regret the earlier error.], was removed from sale shortly before the auction began, according to an article posted on the Times of London's TimesOnline website. Apparently the Pissarro was one of two lots withdrawn prior to the sale.

The Times article states that the sale was halted because a nephew of Bermann-Fischer, one Itai Shoffman, was disputing the painting's restitution and sale. The article said that Shoffman is the grandson of Hildegard Fischer, who was the younger sister of Bermann-Fischer's mother Brigette. Shoffman claims that Hildegard was the black sheep of the family and that her heirs are entitled to half of the proceeds from the sale of the Pissarro:
According to Mr Shoffman, her grandson, Hildegard Fischer was the “black sheep of the family”. She had a disability and by the time she and Hedwig joined the Bermanns in America in 1941, she also had a daughter, Monika, later Mr Shoffman’s mother, born out of wedlock.

According to Christophe Paul, a lawyer in Berlin specialising in inheritance cases, a handwritten will from 1933 proves that her parents wanted their estate to be divided equally between Brigitte and Hildegard. A letter written in 1946 indicates that Hedwig wanted Hildegard to inherit the Pissarro if it was ever found.

Mr Shoffman told The Times that Ms Bermann-Fischer knew the other half of her family well but had excluded them from all matters relating to the Pissarro. He said: “It feels like such a deceitful act. She’s taking away the last remaining legacy of the family and holding it for her own benefit.”

The Times piece reports that the two parties were trying to negotiate a settlement on a split of the money from the sale and that Shoffman said he wanted 50% but was only offered 20%. We can't say at this point what all this means, though we do note that Gisela Bermann-Fischer did spend 500,000 Swiss francs and countless years of searching to recover the painting, so she might quite naturally feel a sense of entitlement to a larger piece of the pie.

We also wonder if the the disputed inheritance might have been a factor in the negotiations Claremont McKenna College history professor Jonathan Petropoulos and German art dealer Peter Griebert had with Gisela Bermann-Fischer, who has accused the two men of threatening her with the loss of her painting forever in their failed attempt to extract a finder's fee from her in January, 2007.

Petropoulos had an interesting quote in the March, 2008, article by CMC's Elise Viebeck in the Claremont Independent:
"I always endeavored to return the painting in question by Camille Pissarro to the person whom I believed was the rightful heir," [Petropoulos] said.

Could Petropoulos and Griebert have known about the other heir? The quote certainly seems to imply that Petropoulos may have questioned Bermann-Fischer's claim to the painting. If so, it's certainly possible that Petropoulos or Griebert or someone associated might have tried contacting Itai Shoffman. We hope we hear more about this aspect of the story in the future.