Edgar Degas (1834–1917)
Portrait of Mlle. Gabrielle Diot (1890)
pastel, 24.02 x 16.93 in. (61 x 43 cm)
Paul Rosenberg’s gallery opened in 1908 at 21, rue la Boétie in Paris’s 8th arrondissement; a prominent arts district colloquially known as the “French Florence” as it was an epicenter of the art market in the interwar period. His influence as an art dealer spanned continents, as he cultivated a respected career from his many relationships and dealings with artists, collectors, and art professionals in Europe and the United States. By the 1930s, his inventory had become a comprehensive selection of works from the previous century through to the avant-garde, including those by his neighbor and friend, Pablo Picasso.
Rosenberg had sensed the imminent threat of war in the years leading up to the Nazi invasion of France. He had ceased operations at his Paris gallery, ultimately shutting it in 1939 and sending large portions of his personal collection and dealing stock abroad to his London gallery and for inclusion in special exhibitions in the United States. But many artworks, approximately four hundred, remained in France in several locations. Some accompanied him to a temporary residence, a villa in Floirac, near Bordeaux. One such work was Portrait of Mlle. Gabrielle Diot, a pastel by French Impressionist Edgar Degas that hung over his desk in Paris and then on the walls at the villa in Floirac.
In June of 1940, the Fall of France resulted in the partitioning of French territory into a German occupied zone in the north and west and a “free zone” administered by the new, collaborationist Vichy regime in the south. Paris was in the zone of German occupation and Heinrich Otto Abetz, the newly appointed German ambassador to Vichy France, moved into the German embassy in Paris. Under Abetz’s oversight, the Nazis began implementing the theft of Jewish property in their occupied territories. As one of the most influential art dealers of works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the interwar period, Rosenberg’s celebrity all but insured he would become a target of the Nazis’ systematic theft of French collections.
Soon after the invasion, members of the Rosenberg family fled to the United States through Portugal, leaving behind the contents of the Floirac residence. In September 1940, Rosenberg’s chauffeur—who had been entrusted with the temporary care and planned transportation of the artworks that remained behind—was confronted by German authorities and two informants, Yves Perdoux and Count de Lestang, who had relayed the location of the works to the German embassy in exchange for 10 percent of their total value in paintings. The contents of the villa were loaded up and transported to Paris, to the German embassy.
By December of 1940, the pastel entered the Jeu de Paume Museum and was inventoried “22” in erroneous association with objects confiscated by the Nazis from Maurice de Rothschild. The Jeu de Paume was the clearing house for the Nazi looting agency the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), which became notorious for its plundering of France’s cultural treasures and was led by its namesake and Nazi ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg. The pastel exited the ERR custody onto the Parisian art market where it was supposedly purchased in 1942 by a Swiss family.
Its more recent history can be traced back to Hamburg art dealer Mathias Hans. He brokered the sale of the pastel to an unknown Swiss collector in 1974. The Rosenberg family became aware of the painting’s existence in 1987 when Paul Rosenberg’s daughter-in-law Elaine Rosenberg discovered the work in one of Hans’ catalogues and phoned him, ultimately leading to no progress in the restitution of the work.
Hans refuses to reveal the identity of the current owner, which has been further complicated by legal hurdles. The details of the current ownership and whereabouts, other than it is in Switzerland and seems to have remained with the purchaser from 1974, remain unknown to the Rosenberg heirs.