Three Old Master paintings looted during WWII, including a storied El Greco, will be auctioned during the Old Masters evening sale at Christie’s in London on December 7. All of the paintings formerly belonged to Julius and Camilla Priester; the couple’s heirs received the works within the past several years, more than seven decades after the canvases were seized by the Nazis.
Julius Priester was a Jewish-Austrian industrialist who amassed his wealth in the oil and energy sector. He and his wife garnered a collection of more than 80 Old Master paintings that included works by Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, and Frans Hals. In an interview, Christie’s head of Old Masters in London, Henry Pettifer, described Priester as “a real connoisseur collector.”
The El Greco, titled Portrait of a Gentleman (1570), depicts a black-clad sitter facing the viewer. It is expected to fetch £800,000–£1.2 million ($690,000–$1.7 million). Also headed to auction are a trompe l’oeil church interior painted by Dutch painter Emmanuel de Witte and a portrait from the late 15th century or early 16th century attributed to the Master of Frankfurt. Those paintings will be offered at estimates of £500,000–£800,000 ($690,000–$1.1 million) and £40,000–£60,000 ($55,000–$82,000), respectively.
As persecution of Jews in Europe began to mount before the war, the Priesters fled to Paris in 1938 and landed in Mexico two years later. In 1944, the Priester’s home and art collection in Vienna were seized by the Nazis. After years in refuge, Priester made many attempts to recover his stolen collection before his death in 1955. His wife and descendants continued those efforts in the decades afterward.
The El Greco was restituted to Priester’s family with the efforts of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe (CLAE), which noticed the work in an online advertisement by a New York dealer. Before its return, the painting’s wartime provenance was concealed and it remained in an Italian collection for four decades. It was later traded on the market between New York and London. After the painting’s return in 2015, it was exhibited in a 2019 exhibition devoted to showing El Greco’s influence on modern portraiture at the Grand Palais in Paris.
El Greco produced the painting at the beginning of his career, between stints in Venice and Rome, and prior to making the intense religious scenes for which he is best known. “It sheds light on the early career of El Greco’s painting in the Venetian idiom, before he turns into the artist that everyone so familiar with before he gets to Spain,” Pettifer said.
Portrait of a Gentleman is likely to bring in a modest sum compared to other El Greco works. To date, El Greco’s most expensive painting, depicting Saint Dominic on his knees, sold for $13.9 million at Sotheby’s London in 2013.
The de Witte painting was restituted in 2019 from a private Austrian collection, where it had resided for several decades. It shows a meticulous view of the Oude Kerk church in Amsterdam from the west end of the nave; a green curtain partially obstructs its view. According to Pettifer, it is one of only five church interiors using the trompe l’oeil device for which de Witte is known; all remaining four are in museum collections. The Master of Frankfurt painting features an unknown sitter, though the subject’s dress and the Antwerp artist’s connection to Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I suggests he was a member of the Netherlands royal court. In 2006, the painting was put up for sale by a private collector in Paris at Christie’s London, where it was identified by the Commission for Looted Art in Europe as having been looted. It was returned to the heirs the same year.
In the years following the war, the two paintings were part of a group of works that Priester sought to reclaim through various legal channels in Europe. They were among the 17 works Priester listed in a bulletin published by the Austrian Federal Police as he attempted to recover his art trove.
Other works looted from Priester’s collection have been recovered. In 2004, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond returned Corneille de Lyon’s Portrait of Jean d’Albon (1539) to Priester’s heirs. Works that still remain at large include portraits by Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, as well as a piece by 15th-century Italian painter Moretto da Brescia that is located at an Italian museum.
According to Anne Webber, co-chair of the CLAE, these three restituted paintings appeared in the right place at the right time. “It was fortunate that these three paintings all reappeared via Austria and the U.K., where there’s more of a commitment to restitution,” said Webber, adding that the commission’s efforts to return other works looted from the Priester collection are still met with challenge. “It’s a matter of real concern that today, 23 years after 44 governments, including Italy, agreed to the Washington Principles, there are still so few countries prepared to ensure that Nazi-looted art is returned to its rightful owners.”