No one doubts that the picture has a Second World War provenance. It was part of a shipment from France of works in Vollard’s stock by the dealer Martin Fabiani, described as a Corsican “gigolo” and a Nazi “arch collaborationist” by Allied investigators. The task now is to determine who owns it today.
“We are eager to resolve the ownership of the Cézanne watercolour, which seems to have been separated from the other Fabiani works for reasons we don’t know,” says Marc Mayer, the director of the National Gallery of Canada, who stresses that the museum does not own the work. The picture has never been exhibited in Ottawa.
The Cézanne came to light in an article in the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, in which the reporter Ian MacLeod tracked its shady journey.
Group of Trees seems to have been among around 600 works sent abroad in spring 1940 by Fabiani, who took over Vollard’s collection after the dealer died in a car accident in 1939.
Working with Vollard’s brother, Lucien, a drug-addicted former diplomat, Fabiani, who was Vollard’s executor, shipped the works through Spain and Portugal to the US to be sold at Gallery E. Bignou, a conduit for Vollard’s stock in New York. In Bermuda, the British Navy intercepted the ship and seized the Vollard cargo. The contents were sent to the more suitable climate of a vault in Ottawa. (During the war, Fabiani provided pictures seized from Jews to dealers supplying Nazi officials. He also organised exhibitions for Allied soldiers after the liberation of Paris. He was later imprisoned and fined around $1m.)
The pictures remained in Canada until 1949, when Fabiani, freed from prison, petitioned a British court for their return. A judge in Paris awarded him three-quarters of the works; the rest were given to Vollard’s two sisters.
“There were two competing claims in the 1950s after the issue of ownership of the larger Fabiani shipment was resolved by a French court, and a third separate claim in the 1960s. These three claims, however, appear to have been unsuccessful,” Mayer says. “The work seems to have reappeared in December 1959, during the gallery’s relocation to a new building. Its disposition was considered in 1960, but no decision was taken at that time, possibly owing to the complexity of the file.”
No claimants have come forward during the past 50 years, Mayer says, although the gallery has taken pains during that time to differentiate the Fabiani shipment from holdings of Nazi loot. Until the Ottawa Citizen article, Group of Trees had never been mentioned publicly.
Pressure to determine the owner of the Cézanne could be building—and so could the resources to help do so. In March, Canada assumed the leadership of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a group devoted to honouring victims of the Nazis. Canadian museums have petitioned for increased funds for provenance research.
In April, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts returned Gerrit van Honthorst’s The Duet, 1624, once the property of Catherine the Great, which Nazis seized from the home of the German collector Bruno Spiro. Bought by the museum in 1969, the work is estimated to bring between $2m and $3m at Christie’s Old Master sale in New York on 5 June.
The potential value of Group of Trees could hasten the assignment of legal title to the work, which the Ottawa Citizen calls the “orphaned Cézanne”. At the height of the market in 2007, Cezanne’s watercolour Still-life with Green Melon, 1902-06, sold for $25.5m, a record for a work on paper by the artist at auction.