Her case was initially taken on pro bono by the London branch of the Art Loss Register (ALR) in 2001. But in January 2007, it requested a fee after locating the painting in Switzerland. The painting is reportedly worth between $5m and $7m; the ALR proposed a complex compensation scheme asking for 20 per cent of the first $1 million, 15 per cent of the second million and 10 per cent of any additional value.
Jonathan Petropoulos, a history professor at the Claremont McKenna College in California, was hired as a consultant. Later, working with Munich art dealer Peter Griebert, he tried to charge Mrs Fischer a fee in meetings held without the ALR officials, before establishing contact between her and the painter’s owners. The action was described as a “threat” by Mrs Fischer.
Mr Griebert was later found to have connections with Bruno Lohse, a former Nazi looter and subject of much of Prof Petropoulos’s studies. The painting was found in a bank vault registered to the Schonart Anstalt trust, which Lohse owned.
Mr Griebert was found to have been Lohse’s aide, and to have entered the vault over 20 times since 1988.
Sarah Jackson of the Art Loss Register told the JC that the ALR had spent six years finding the Pissarro.
“Undertaking this kind of specialised research is simply not sustainable over the long term if no other funding sources are available. The ALR receives no funding or donations from other sources, unlike other bodies involved in this kind of restitution work.”
Emails sent in 2007 by Prof Petropoulos to Mr Griebert have been published in his university’s student magazine, Claremont Independent (CI).
In them, Prof Petropoulos, who is also director of the college’s Centre for the Study of Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights, states: “She [Mrs Fischer] simply cannot recover the painting without us. At least, I don’t know if she would discover on her own the identity of the holders and their current location.”
In another email he writes: “It would be difficult to give her the names and locations without any compensation. That just won’t happen.”
The professor, who has been cleared of legal wrongdoing in an internal inquiry by the university, told CI: “I always endeavoured to return the painting in question by Camille Pissarro to the person whom I believed to be the rightful heir.”
Sarah Jackson said she did not regret hiring the professor, explaining: “It was always our hope that the picture could be recovered for Mrs Fischer and it was thought Prof Petropoulos might be able to facilitate this through his relationship with Bruce Lohse, who was suspected of having a connection to the picture.”
She added: “The ALR intended to provide the professional expertise and financial cover for him, but we were sidelined in the process and so we played no part in any discussions to try and recover the picture.
“We do not believe there was any dishonesty on the part of Professor Petropoulos but he made errors of judgment... and we believe that he did not have sufficient experience to handle this matter when there was a clear attempt to provide misleading information on the painting’s ownership.”
She added: “We understand that the revelations of this case — particularly the activity of Peter Griebert, the discovery of the Schonart Trust in Lichtenstein and the role of Bruno Lohse, an unrepentant Nazi who profited for decades from the sale of Nazi looted art stolen from persecuted families — have caused great distress to Frau Fischer and her family.
“We hope that the picture will be restored to her as soon as possible.”
David Lewis, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, told the JC: “No-one involved in this story seems to come out of it well. But it would be regrettable were there to be damage to the reputation and credibility of Professor Petropoulos and his work.
“Serious and important questions have been raised about how claimants are charged and treated. Transparency is essential.
“All those who are engaged in this field have a duty to treat ethically information derived from a relationship with a former Nazi.
“If it is correct that such information is being exploited for financial benefit and that victims of the Nazis are told it will be withheld from them unless they pay considerable sums of money, this would be deeply unacceptable.”