When she was growing up in Paris, Pauline Baer de Perignon was always told the same story about her great-grandfather, Jewish art collector Jules Strauss.
Strauss — a German Jew living in Paris — owned a trove of Impressionist pictures by Renoir, Degas, Monet and many others. But the stock market crash of the 1930s forced him to sell much of his collection, leaving his heirs nothing. He died in 1943 of old age.
Baer de Perignon never questioned this narrative, until 2014, when she bumped into her cousin, an art dealer, at a concert. After some small talk, he asked: “Did you know there was something shady about the Strauss sale? … I think Jules was robbed.”
“I was in shock,” Baer de Perignon said, adding that the revelation was like “hearing so much information that your brain stops working properly because it’s just so big.”
Now, one of Strauss’ paintings, “Portrait of a Lady as Pomona,” by classical painter Nicolas de Largillière, will be auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York City on Jan. 27 after a years-long quest by Baer de Perignon to prove the work was stolen by the Nazis.
“There were times where I wanted to give up,” the 48-year-old Parisian told The Post of her nearly five-year battle to get the German government to return the painting. “But I knew it was important … It was a matter of memory, of justice, of identity.”
Baer de Perignon documents the experience in her new memoir, “The Vanished Collection” (New Vessel Press), and has now come to NYC to celebrate her victory. The Largillière painting, which depicts the famed Marquise de Parabère — a favorite lover of Philippe II of France — as Pomona, goddess of fruit and abundance, is expected to fetch between $1 million and $1.5 million at the Sotheby’s auction.
And now, Baer de Perignon can tell the real story.
Jules Strauss was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1861 to a prominent banking family. He moved to Paris in 1880 to work as a foreign-exchange broker, and by 1884 he was collecting Dutch and Flemish masters, as well as 18th-century French painters like Watteau. Sometime after World War I, he quit his job to focus on collecting art full-time.
His treasures covered nearly every inch of the apartment he shared with his wife, Marie-Louise, and their three children. They had to leave their home after France surrendered to Germany in 1940 and the Nazis requisitioned it.
Two years later, the German task force charged with expropriating large Jewish art collections, the ERR, seized a storage unit that belonged to the Strausses, consisting of 69 crates filled with furniture and paintings.
Miraculously, the couple and their children were never deported to a camp. Jules and Marie-Louise were so desperate to avoid persecution that they got baptized as Catholics a year before Jules’ death.
For a long time, Baer de Perignon had no idea if what her cousin said about Nazis and stolen art was true. And then in 2016, while searching a list of claims made to the French Looted Art Commission at the Looted Art Archives outside of Paris, she spotted the name “Madame Jules Strauss.” That’s when she found a dossier for a restitution claim filed by Marie-Louise back in 1945.
“When I saw the file with the handwriting of my great-grandmother — that’s when I knew that she had been looted, that something happened,” Baer de Perignon said. “It made me shiver.”
She set out to learn everything she could about her great-grandfather, and to piece together his lost collection, scouring auction records, interviewing historians and visiting archives in France, England and Germany. She even consulted a clairvoyant in a moment of desperation.
At the German Federal Archives, she found 600 pages of documents containing her grandmother Elisabeth’s claims, spanning from 1958 to 1974, against the German government — which decided that the family hadn’t provided sufficient evidence that the works listed had been stolen or sent to Germany.
Baer de Perignon eventually came across Largillière’s “Portrait of a Lady as Pomona” on a website called German Lost Art Foundation. It had ended up in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen museum in Dresden in 1959, where it hung for six decades.
“I said, ‘Okay, [the museum] knows it’s looted,” Baer de Perignon said. “I was a bit naive. … That was the beginning of years of conversations where I had to prove all that time that it belonged to my great-grandfather and it had been taken.”
Baer de Perignon combed through Strauss’ journals and noticed he mentioned the Largillière twice, with a note adding that it had been sold in 1941. The date gave her pause: Many Jews at the time were selling their art for low sums after losing their bank accounts, property and businesses because they needed cash to flee the country. Later, she found the painting in a catalog of artworks that had been transported to Germany by shopgirl-turned-Nazi-collaborator Margot Jannson. While Jules had sold it for 400,000 francs, it was listed for 4.5 million.
Dresden’s Staatliche Kunstsammlungen was reluctant to give it up. Even after an investigation concluded that Strauss’ sale was a forced one, the museum said circumstances were “complicated” and offered to buy the painting 2018 from the family.
“This was a second forced sale: a restitution that was conditional on us agreeing to sell the painting to the museum,” Baer de Perignon writes. “When they spoke of ‘complicated’ circumstances, and forced us to agree to sell back the painting, was this not, in a way, denying that it had been stolen — and thus negating Jules’s history?”
While Baer de Perignon was fearful about making the right decision, she refused the offer even before a price was offered. The museum then sent her case to Germany’s Ministry of Arts and Culture and Finance Ministry, where it languished several more years. Baer de Perignon got a lawyer specializing in art restitution to help compile a dossier of documentation proving the forced sale of the painting. Finally, the museum acceded and, in January 2021, a truck arrived at her Paris apartment with the painting. She had won.
She toyed with the idea of keeping the painting for herself, but knew she couldn’t afford to pay out her relatives. (Plus, she said of the months that “Portrait of a Lady as Pomona” lived with her, “I was very scared — of the kids, the cat, the thieves! I had to put an alarm in my place.”) Instead, the earnings from the sale will be split among 20 heirs. They decided to sell with Sotheby’s, where Baer de Perignon’s cousin and uncle once worked as art dealers.
The family has had another work, a modest drawing by rococo artist Giovanni Tiepolo, restituted to them from the Louvre, and Baer de Perignon remains on the hunt for others, although she is not searching as fiercely as she once did.
“I think with the sale and the book launch, it feels like the end of an adventure,” she said.