The question of provenance is at the center of a legal battle in California. Collector Steven Brooks of San Francisco paid £57,600 (approximately $106,796) for a painting by French painter Louis-Michel van Loo (1707-1771) at Sotheby’s old master paintings sale in London on July 8, 2004. Cataloged as Allegorical Portrait of a Lady as Diana Wounded by Cupid, the oil on canvas measured 64" x 61".
Brooks claims that the painting was once in the collection of Hermann Goering, founder of the Nazi Gestapo, something he didn’t know when he bought the picture.
Brooks was informed of Goering’s ownership in October 2010 when he tried to sell the painting through Christie’s. He was told that “questions of provenance, specifically Goering’s ownership, prevented Christie’s from offering the painting for sale,” court papers state. “By the summer of 2011, Christie’s concluded that insufficient evidence could be gathered as to the circumstances of Goering’s acquisition of the painting in 1939, and that they could not, therefore, assist Brooks in its sale.”
Brooks then approached Sotheby’s, which agreed to research the provenance. On January 17, Sotheby’s concluded that it too was “unable to clarify the painting’s provenance sufficiently to offer it for sale.” In a letter to Brooks, Sotheby’s wrote, “We would want to establish that he [Goering] did not acquire it through the persecution of the prior owner.”
Brooks requested a refund and was turned down. He filed suit on March 21 in Superior Court of California alleging violation of the California Consumers Legal Remedies Act, violation of the unfair competition law, unjust enrichment, fraudulent concealment, and negligent misrepresentation.
The suit states, “At the time the Painting was purchased by Brooks, Sotheby’s knew, or reasonably should have known, the following facts: (1) the Painting was at one time owned by Hermann Goering, founder of the Nazi Gestapo, commander-in-chief of the German Luftwaffe air force, Senior General and designated successor to Adolph Hitler; (2) Goering acquired the painting on August 23, 1939, through an intermediary art dealer; (3) in light of the circulation of confiscated and forcibly sold art work from Jewish collections that occurred after 1933 the conclusion that this is such a work cannot be ruled out as a possibility by reputable art dealers; (4) this question-mark over the provenance of the Painting is such that there is a cloud on the title such that no art auction house will accept the Painting for sale; and (5) full disclosure of the questionable provenance of the Painting would render the Painting valueless.”
The provenance in the 2004 auction catalog listed “Prince Serge Koudacheff, St. Petersburg; Thence to Princess Vera Koudacheff” and noted that Sotheby’s had sold the painting once before, on June 4, 1987, in New York City.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest