Legal Battle in French Courts Over Forced Sale of Art 

Grandchildren of Jewish art dealer René Gimpel have gone to court over the return of three André Derain paintings, currently displayed in French museums. The five heirs claim that the works were the subject of a forced sale during World War II. 

Legal Battle in French Courts Over Forced Sale of Art 

On 25 June 2019, the Paris District Court upheld the Gimpel heirs' lawsuit, requesting the State to return three paintings belonging to their grandfather, the Jewish art dealer and collector René Gimpel, who died in deportation in January 1945. 

Two of the three works in question, Landscape in Cassis and La Chapelle-sous-Crécy, were given by the State at the Troyes Museum, while the last, Pinède, Cassis, was acquired in 1987 by the Cantini Museum in Marseille. According to Gimpel's descendants, their grandfather was forced to sell them shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War. The famous merchant had closed his Parisian art gallery in 1939, before fleeing to join the resistance in July 1940. Part of his property, kept in 81 boxes, had been seized by the Germans in 1942. Gimpel died in deportation at Hamburg-Neuengamme concentration camp three years later.

Portrait of René Gimpel taken in 1916, image © René Gimpel Succession, via The Art Newspaper
Portrait of René Gimpel taken in 1916, image © René Gimpel Succession, via The Art Newspaper

The first of the heirs’ claims was filed in 2013, via their lawyer, Corinne Hershkovitch. However, the file became bogged down as tracing the path travelled by the works in such a hectic period proved challenging. During the trial, the Gimpel lawyer brought a large amount of evidence that could establish the theft, such as the catalogue of the sale of the collection by the merchant Kahnweiler to Drouot, which demonstrates Gimpel’s acquisition of six paintings by the Fauvist in 1921, including four landscapes. Among these works are Cassis, Vallon à Cassis, and Le Moulin, which he renamed La Chapelle-sous-Crécy

Ms Hershkovitch's file also included photographs held by the museums, taken directly from the Gimpel archives, as well as photographs of Gimpel’s private mansion, where the works were hung. "Rene Gimpel probably did what he could to sell them and survive," she pleaded, which, in view of the exceptional laws that overwhelmed the Jewish people at that time, is assimilable to a ‘forced sale’. 

André Derain, ‘Pine Forest, Cassis’, 1907, kept in the Cantini Museum in Marseille, image © ADAGP / Paris and DACS / London 2019
André Derain, ‘Pine Forest, Cassis’, 1907, kept in the Cantini Museum in Marseille, image © ADAGP / Paris and DACS / London 2019

The lawyers of the museums attested the legality of the acquisitions, and in particular that of Pinède, Cassis, whose sale was orchestrated by a resistant and close friend of Gimpel’s. The painting was bought in 1942 by the Terrin family from art critic Jacque Guenne, then sold to the museum in 1987. The two of the Troyes Museum’s works were bought by Pierre Levy in 1948 and 1951, and were then donated it to the city in 1976. 

"Unfortunately we are missing key facts in this case," said the lawyer of the Ministry of Culture, Mr. Burel. "We do not have an exhaustive list of the Derains that René Gimpel possessed. We know that there have been others than those bought at the Kahnweiler sale, including a ‘Red Boat’ cited in his newspaper.” The Ministry of Culture believes that evidence of spoliation remains insufficient, and that there is no act of sale tracing its activity for these 40-45 years. "Exactly," noted Claire Gimpel, "since he had no right to sell them".

The Gallery Gimpel in Trouville-sur-Mer, Calvados, circa 1900, image © Gimpel Archives / Archives of American Art / Smithsonian Institution
The Gallery Gimpel in Trouville-sur-Mer, Calvados, circa 1900, image © Gimpel Archives / Archives of American Art / Smithsonian Institution

For Claire, who orchestrated the hunt for paintings, it is not a question of money: "If they had proposed to rewrite the information cards next to the artworks to tell the works’ story and mention their provenance, along with my grandfather’s name, I would have been delighted. But they were not even capable of doing that. " 

In view of the museums’ hostility since 2013, to the "inertia of France", and the stalemate of the dialogue with the Ministry of Culture, the case has been brought to the courts, and the deliberation is expected on 29 August. 

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