Sotheby’s Will Auction Restituted Art in Upcoming Hester Diamond Sale

Liz Catalano
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August Liebmann Mayer was a leading art collector, curator, and professor in early 20th-century Germany. His expertise in Spanish art was sought by museums around the world. He also spent decades building a private collection of masterworks. However, Mayer was also a Jewish academic living in Hitler’s Germany. Before his death at Auschwitz, the Nazi Party’s Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce stole dozens of artworks from Mayer’s collection.

One of those stolen works has finally been returned to Mayer’s heirs. A panel painting by Italian Gothic painter Jacopo di Cione will be available in a Sotheby’s live auction featuring the collection of Hester Diamond. Bidding for the restituted artwork will begin on January 29th, 2021.

Jacopo di Cione, Madonna Nursing the Christ Child with Saints Lawrence and Margaret; Predella: the Man of Sorrows, Mater Dolorosa, and Saint John the Evangelist, with two coats of arms, 1365-1398. Image from Sotheby’s.
Jacopo di Cione, Madonna Nursing the Christ Child with Saints Lawrence and Margaret; Predella: the Man of Sorrows, Mater Dolorosa, and Saint John the Evangelist, with two coats of arms, 1365-1398. Image from Sotheby’s.

“We do not know exactly how or when the Jacopo di Cione left the Mayer collection. All we know is that it was after 1927,” Lucian Simmons, the Vice Chairman and Worldwide Head of Sotheby’s restitution department, told ARTnews. The painting, which depicts the Madonna nursing the Christ child, fell off the art world’s radar for several decades before resurfacing in Paris. It then moved through a series of auctions and private sales to land in Hester Diamond’s collection. The self-taught New York art collector and dealer acquired the di Cione work in 1989. 

Sotheby’s will bring items from Diamond’s estate to auction in two January sales. The auction house negotiated a restitution agreement for the di Cione work between August Liebmann Mayer’s heir, Angelika B. Mayer, and Diamond’s representatives. 

Restituted art has a long and complicated history. The category typically refers to artworks displaced between 1933 and 1945 under the Nazi regime. Pieces that were lawfully held in private Jewish collections wound up in government buildings, museums, or private spaces. Returning the stolen artworks after World War II has proven to be a difficult process. “The first job was to repatriate the works to the countries from which they had been removed, and then it was up to local governments to track down the individuals or museums to which the works belonged,” Richard Aronowitz, a restitution specialist at Sotheby’s London, said in a conversation with The Jewish Chronicle. “It was at this point that the process often broke down.”

More than 75 years after the Allies won World War II, many of these pieces have yet to return to their rightful owners. When a collector’s heir does win a case, the restituted art may return to private collections or enter the market.

Max Liebermann, Zwei Reiter am Strand nach links (Two Riders on the Beach to the Left), 1901. Image from Sotheby’s.
Max Liebermann, Zwei Reiter am Strand nach links (Two Riders on the Beach to the Left), 1901. Image from Sotheby’s.

Returning Nazi-looted art is a notoriously difficult process. Individual heirs often find themselves suing countries or powerful cultural institutions. Jewish collectors can encounter anti-Semitism from the art world, as well. “Even if it is rightfully yours — even if it was stolen, with intense violence, from your immediate ancestors — there’s always a troubling sense that you’re falling into some sort of cash-grabbing stereotype,” David Baddiel, a British comedian and filmmaker, wrote for the Financial Times in 2015.

Several successfully restituted art pieces have made it to auction in recent years. Max Liebermann’s Two Riders on a Beach to the Left achieved GBP 1,865,000 (USD 2,945,395) in 2015 with Sotheby’s after being returned to the heirs of David Friedmann. The piece more than tripled its high estimate. For the heirs, its sale was not a defeat but rather the affirmation of a long-erased history. 

Paolo Uccello, Battle on the Banks of a River, Probably the Battle of the Metaurus (207 BCE), c. 1468. Image from Sotheby’s.

Collectors interested in these returned pieces, including those new to the market, may note the rising prices of restituted art. A battle painting attributed to Paolo Uccello sold for GBP 2,415,000 (USD 3,305,400) in July of 2020. Similar to the di Cione painting coming to auction in January, the Uccello piece was sold under a restitution agreement negotiated by Sotheby’s. 

Live bidding for the Jacopo di Cione painting will start at 10:00 AM EST on January 29th, 2021. Visit the Sotheby’s website for more information or to place a bid. 

Interested in more art world news? Auction Daily recently covered Sotheby’s upcoming auction honoring installation artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude