More than 70 years after it was plundered by the Nazis, a missing painting by Monet that depicts the shimmering blue rapids of the Creuse river has pitted two of the wealthiest and most prominent families in France against each other.
Ginette Heilbronn Moulin, 85, chairwoman of the Galeries Lafayette department store chain, is pursuing a claim that the Wildenstein family, an international dynasty of French art dealers, is concealing information about the stolen work. The canvas, which belonged to the Heilbronn family, vanished in 1941 after a Gestapo raid on a family bank vault.
Last summer, after Moulin filed a criminal complaint against the Wildensteins, the French authorities ordered a preliminary investigation. An anti-art-trafficking squad is sifting through World War II documents to pick up the trail of the work, Torrent de la Creuse, Monet’s 1889 study of the confluence of the Creuse and the Petite Creuse rivers.
The Wildensteins, who have been selling art for five generations, have steadfastly denied any knowledge of the painting’s whereabouts. But Daniel Wildenstein, an Impressionist scholar who died in 2001, included it in two of his widely embraced inventories of Monet’s work. In both he listed it as being in a private collection: an anonymous owner in the first reference and an unidentified American owner in 1996.
The suspicions of Moulin and her family were aroused last year when more than 30 artworks that had been reported missing or stolen were found in a vault at the Wildenstein Institute, a nonprofit research organisation the Wildensteins run from a mansion on the Right Bank. The items, most of which had vanished years earlier during the settlement of estates, were recovered in an unrelated investigation.
But members of one Jewish family told the police that they believed a sculpture of theirs recovered from the vault could have been looted by the Nazis because it appeared on no postwar estate lists.
Guy Wildenstein, the billionaire who leads the family business from New York, has contended that the institute never hid missing works, saying it simply lacked a full inventory of what was in its vault.
Lawyers for Wildenstein, who is Jewish, have strenuously denied that any of the seized items were Nazi loot.
The Monet vanished in a Gestapo raid on a bank vault in the southwest of France, from which 10 paintings belonging to Moulin’s father, Max Heilbronn, were taken. Heilbronn was a member of the Resistance. Four of the family’s works have been recovered, including a Renoir painting of pastel roses that the family spotted when it came up for sale at Christie’s in 2004. Two Pissarro landscapes were also recovered from the Berlin home of Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second in command.
Alexandre Bronstein, whose family’s sculpture was found in the Wildenstein vault, says new clues could come when archives from a 1949 war-crimes trial of a German diplomat who organised the looting are unsealed in 2024.
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Moulin says that in the 1950s, her mother, Paulette Heilbronn, met an art dealer who had a photograph of the painting, and that he pledged to recover it. But when Heilbronn approached the dealer again, he told her it was in the possession of people who were “untouchable”, Moulin says. Years later the family discovered references to the missing painting in the 1979 and 1996 editions of Daniel Wildenstein’s five-volume inventory, or catalogue raisonné, of Monet’s work. The catalogues’ mention of the missing Monet fuelled suspicions in Moulin’s family that the Wildensteins either had the painting or knew where it was.
In 2002 records show that her lawyers asked Guy Wildenstein for help in locating the painting and that he referred them to the Wildenstein Institute, which said it had no information about the painting’s whereabouts.
In recent months Guy Wildenstein has been interviewed at least seven times by investigators in connection with a case that is an outgrowth of the family’s long-running internal clash over the multimillion-dollar estate of Daniel Wildenstein, Guy Wildenstein’s father.
“When we heard about these strange stories, I thought it was the right moment to struggle to get back the painting,” says Guillaume Houzé, 30, Moulin’s grandson.
The quest for the missing Monet has reached the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It owns a Monet that is described as a near twin of the missing painting. “Torrent of the Petite Creuse at Fresselines” was purchased by the Wildensteins in 1958 from a private collector, then sold to another collector, Adelaide Milton de Groot. She bequeathed it in 1967 to the Met, which lists it as Rapids on the Petite Creuse at Fresselines. It is not on display, though the museum has posted a copy online with a notation that says it “is nearly identical to another painting (private collection.)” The Met says its information about the painting came from the Wildenstein catalogue.
Last summer the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a New York-based organisation that tries to arrange for the restitution of property to Holocaust survivors and their heirs, asked the museum about its painting’s provenance. The museum said the paintings were clearly different. It also produced a typed, unsigned English translation of a 1961 letter from Max Heilbronn to Daniel Wildenstein, in which Heilbronn acknowledges that the Met’s work “cannot be the one which was stolen from me during the war.” The museum has not been able to find a copy of the original letter.
“There’s no question that this is not the canvas,” says Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the Met. The person who could perhaps provide the most information, Daniel Wildenstein, is buried below two obelisks in Montparnasse Cemetery here. A few months before Wildenstein died, Moulin’s New York lawyer asked him why he reported in his 1996 catalogue that her painting was held by a private collector.
A few weeks later a brief letter was sent out by the Wildenstein Institute, dated September 12, 2001, carrying Daniel Wildenstein’s typed name and signature.
“I regret,” the letter said, “that this error slipped into the new edition of the book.”
It contained no other information about the painting.
© The New York Times 2012