Auction Explores The Theme Of Nazi-Looted Art

Nazi-looted paintings turn up in the most surprising of places. In Pascal Bonitzer’s French-language movie, Auction, which will be screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on June 2, a canvas by the Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele is found in the home of a young factory worker who has no idea of its intrinsic value.

Having been informed of this amazing discovery, a Parisian art dealer named Andre Masson (Alex Lutz) drives to the Alsatian city of Mulhouse to meet its owner, Martin Keller (Arcadi Radeff), to ascertain whether Sunflowers is a fake or the genuine article. Much to his surprise, it is the real thing.

As it happens, Sunflowers was looted by the Nazis from its owners, a Jewish family which managed to escape from Europe just in the nick of time. Declared as “degenerate” by the Nazi regime, it vanished in 1939, not to be seen again until Masson stumbled upon it.

Bonitzer’s 90-minute film explores this theme as well as the nature of Masson’s cutthroat business.

Egon Schiele

As Masson tells his ambitious and slippery assistant, Aurore (Louise Chevilotte), this line of work demands a certain degree of tolerance for clients’ foibles.

The very first scene illustrates this. Visiting the home of a potential client, a cranky old woman, Masson must hold his nose as she badmouths her daughter, denigrates her late husband, and insults black people.

Harboring no illusions about her job, Aurore expresses a dislike of it because she is always called upon to “play a role” in performing it.

In general, she’s a disillusioned person, having been embittered by her father’s run of bad luck. An antique book dealer, he was cheated by his partner and shorn of his wealth by the income tax authorities.

These personal asides fade into the woodwork as Masson looks for a buyer to purchase Sunflowers at a reasonable price. A potential buyer from Germany appears, but he dismisses Schiele’s painting as an inferior work of art.

Alex Lutz in Auction

Masson is temporarily disappointed by his harsh appraisal, but he is not fooled. The German is playing a game, hoping to lower the price of the painting, whose provenance has been traced back to a Jewish family from the United States. Sunflowers goes up for sale at an auction, and it fetches an astronomical price, much to everyone’s delight.

Auction moves along at a pleasant pace and immerses viewers in a little-known but utterly fascinating world.