A Rare Buddha’s Head Statue Once Looted by the Nazis Goes up for Auction in New York

Countless treasures were stolen or confiscated by the Nazis from museums and Jewish collectors during World War II. Over the past few decades, some of these Nazi-looted works of art are starting to be returned to the rightful owners or their heirs. We often hear stories from the media about the restitution of Western artworks like paintings or sculpture. But among those looted objects, there were precious Chinese works of art as well.

One example is a rare Chinese marble head of Buddha, dated Sui Dynasty (550-618). It was confiscated by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg during the Nazi occupation of Paris and later returned to its owner – David David-Weill.

A marble head of Buddha, Sui Dynasty (550-618)

Born in San Francisco in 1871, David David-Weill was a Jewish American banker. His parents had left France in 1870 because of the Franco-Prussian War. He spent the first 13 years of his life in the United States until his family returned to France for his secondary education. There he studied law, performed one year of voluntary military service, and began a career in the bank owned by his uncles, Lazard Frères.

It was after the family returned to France in 1884 and during an extended tour of European museums that David David-Weill developed a life-long passion for the arts, encompassing among other things old master paintings, sculpture, antiquities and 18th-century French furniture. He also had a wide range of interests in the arts of China. His vast collection encompassed Song ceramics, Buddhist sculpture as well as classical paintings.

In the 1930s’, David David-Weill hired Marcelle Minet as a curator to his collection. In 1939, Minet began carefully inventorying and crating the vast collection. 130 crates were shipped to Château du Sources along with other treasures from the Louvre. Minet had evacuated most of the collection but some items still remained at the David-Weill house in Neuilly. Between 1940-1943, David David-Weill’s art collection, including the portions in the David-Weill house and the remainder of his collection in France, was seized by Nazi troops and shipped to Germany.

Lazard Frères was seized by the Vichy government several months later and put under ‘Aryan’ management. David David-Weill was forced out. He left France for Spain, but soon returned. David David-Weill spent the rest of the war hiding in the home of a retired army officer.

David David-Weill was an avid art collector and the owner of what was considered at the time to be one of the finest art collections in private hands

Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg or ERR) is a Nazi Party organization dedicated to appropriating cultural property at the time. It was led by the chief ideologue of the Nazi Party, Alfred Rosenberg. The ERR started operations in occupied France soon after the invasion in June and early July 1940, when the Führer authorised seizure under Rosenberg’s direction of cultural holdings of Jews and Masons.

According to the German ERR documents from 1944, the art seizures in France totalled 21,903 objects from 203 collections, many of which were from Jewish collections. There were 5,009 items confiscated from the Rothschild family collections and 2,687 items from the David-Weill collection.

Alfred Rosenberg (left) was the chief ideologue of the Nazi Party

Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume

All looted and confiscated artworks were initially shipped by truck to the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, next to the Louvre Museum in central Paris. When the Germans invaded, Rose Valland was working as an assistant curator at the gallery. She secretly recorded as much as possible of the more than 20,000 pieces of art brought to Jeu de Paume, including their destinations. The information was passed on to the Resistance, and from there to the Allies so that they could avoid bombing those destinations. She kept secret from the Nazis that she understood German, which enabled her to gather critical information from the conversations of drivers, guards, and packers. The information she gathered served as a treasure map for Rorimer and the Monuments Men leading to the discovery of multiple repositories of looted art.

Rose Valland played an important role in saving a great number of valuable artworks stolen by the Nazis 

American soldiers carrying Nazi-looted paintings at Neuschwanstein Castle near Füssen, Germany

Marcelle Minet, who helped curate and evacuate the David-Weill collection, was one of the French Resistance informants to Rose Valland. On 19 December 1945, Minet discovered the same crates belonging to the David-Weill collection that she herself had so carefully packed and labelled. She was immediately put in charge of the collection and began unpacking and recording each item’s description and box number while also gathering the required proofs of ownership in order to send the items home.

Thanks to the help of many heroes, most of the objects from David David-Weill’s collection were restituted after the War. Today, more than 2,000 rescued items can be seen across the globe in the collections of the Louvre, the Musée Guimet, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the Museum of Man, the National Institute of Art History, and universities in New York, Hamburg, Leiden, Honolulu, and Stockholm, which were donated by David-Weill in his later life.

The Sui dynasty Buddha’s head was one of the items transferred to Jeu de Paume on 28 June 1943, ERR inventory no. DW 2492. It was repatriated to France on 4 March 1946 and subsequently restituted to David David-Weill. It went up for auction at Sotheby’s London in 1972 after his death.

The Buddha’s head was acquired by Eskenazi, the Godfather of Chinese Antiques, from the sale. It was then kept in the James and Marilynn Alsdorf Collection. It is part of the items from the collection that will go under the hammer at Christie’s New York sale on 24 September, estimated to fetch US$500,000 – 700,000.

Lot 809|A Very Rare and Important Marble Head of Buddha

Height: 29.9 cm

  • The Collection of David David-Weill (1871-1952), Paris, acquired prior to 1925.
  • Confiscated from the above by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg during the Nazi occupation of Paris and transferred to the Jeu de Paume, 28 June 1943 (ERR inventory no. DW 2492).
  • Repatriated to France, 4 March 1946, and subsequently restituted to David David-Weill.
  • Sotheby's London: The D. David-Weill Collection, 29 February 1972, lot 14.
  • Eskenazi Ltd., London, 12 February 1979.
  • The James and Marilynn Alsdorf Collection, Chicago.

Estimate: US$500,000 - 700,000

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: Sacred and Imperial: The James and Marilynn Alsdorf Collection Part I
Sale date: 24 September 2020