Paris, France CNN  — 

In 2010, an unexpected phone call from an American attorney turned Claire Gimpel’s world on its axis.

The lawyer — Laurence Eisenstein, whose firm works to recover artwork looted by the Nazis — said he’d been speaking to a British scholar who’d come across the name René Gimpel in art collectors’ archives. René was Claire’s grandfather, a French Jewish resistance fighter killed in a German concentration camp.

Eisenstein told Claire that he and Ian Locke, a researcher who has studied and written about post-war restitutions, believed the Nazis had stolen a substantial art collection from her grandfather.

While the Gimpels knew René was a renowned art dealer before World War II, they were oblivious to the extent of his collection. “We were never told anything about my grandfather other than that (he was in the French resistance). Certainly not that he had been robbed,” Claire told CNN in a phone interview, adding: “He didn’t hide during the war. In my family, he’s considered a hero.”

For Claire, a now-70-year-old Jewish French woman living in Paris, it was the beginning of a 13-year battle to track down her grandfather’s stolen art, including precious paintings by 19th-century Fauvist artist André Derain and another by the Impressionist master Claude Monet.

Thousands of objects lost or looted

As well as being a famous gallerist of his time, René Gimpel was a very well-connected man. Closely related to the Vuitton family (his mother Clarisse Vuitton was Louis Vuitton’s niece), René socialized with artists such as Monet, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, and bonded with acclaimed writer Marcel Proust, who became a close friend over their shared passion for the work of the artist Johannes Vermeer.

Gimpel Estate
A portrait of René Gimpel taken in the garden of his home in Paris.

René closed his Paris gallery in 1938, for unknown reasons. After the Germans entered the city on June 14, 1940, René, who under the laws of Vichy France was “of Jewish race,” fled with his wife to Cannes, and then Monte Carlo, leaving his housekeeper, Odile Firer, to handle his affairs in Paris.

Despite the risks, René chose to join the Resistance. Arrested twice — first by the French Vichy regime, which let him go, and then by the German Gestapo, who took him as a political prisoner — René was deported to Neuengamme, a concentration camp near Hamburg. He died there in 1945.

During Claire’s conversation with Eisenstein in 2010, the lawyer revealed that René’s substantial portfolio had been divided up and spread across Europe — sold at auctions, housed in private collections and even put on display in museums.

“We had no idea,” recalled Claire, explaining that by using online family archives — ledgers, correspondence and photographs (René was a prodigious journal keeper) — Locke had compiled a 1,000-line spreadsheet of objects he believed were plundered from her family. In some cases, Claire said, one line represented not only one item but a cache of multiple objects, such as a set of engravings containing pieces dating from the Middle Ages through to the Renaissance. “That means tens of thousands of art objects have disappeared,” Claire said.

René Gimpel Archives
The interior of Hôtel Doucet on rue Spontini, René Gimpel's home in the early 1930s.

The list was the beginning of the Gimpel heirs’ fight to recover her grandfather’s collection, and for Claire, the mission held a special kind of urgency. “I’m getting old,” she said, adding that she fears the day when no-one who remembers her grandfather remains alive. “We have to finish this quickly, because people like me are all going to die. After us, there won’t really be anyone left to search for the property and return it to the families. ”

Finding stolen artworks, decades later

Precisely what happened to René’s artworks during the war remains unclear, but court filings state that  in 1942, his Paris apartment — at 6 Place du Palais Bourbon — was confiscated and looted by the German embassy, as were 82 crates of artworks he had placed in storage.  In 1944, the Gestapo seized more of his property from a bank safe in Nice.

Family archives also supported the five Gimpel heirs’ belief that their grandfather was forced to sell pieces of art to survive after the Nazis occupied France. A decree of April 26, 1941 forbade Jews from working in the commercial sector; stateless, in hiding and without bank accounts, René would have had no other way to financially support his family or the resistance network.

Early in their search, the Gimpels learned through family records that René bought six André Derain paintings at auction in 1921. With help from Locke and Eisenstein, they identified three of those paintings on display in museums in France.

Two of the André Derain paintings owned by René Gimpel, "Paysage a Cassis" (L) and "Pinede, Cassis" (R).

Two of them, “Paysage à Cassis” and “La Chapelle-sous-Crécy”, were tracked down to a public museum in Troyes, northeastern France; another, “Pinède, Cassis,” was discovered in a museum in Marseille. All had been on display for years.

Court documents seen by CNN show that, in 2013, the Gimpel heirs submitted a claim to the Ministry of Culture for the restitution of the three Derain paintings.

In an email to CNN, the French Ministry of Culture acknowledged René’s assets had been stolen, forcibly sold or confiscated during the war, and said the family had been compensated for some of their lost property. (The family confirmed to CNN that they applied for, and received, compensation from the German and French governments via a joint restitutions scheme, though they declined to specify the amount.)

But the emailed statement went on to say that the ministry did not have “enough information on the whereabouts of the works or proof that they had been stolen from René Gimpel” to return the three Derain paintings.

At an impasse, the Gimpel family turned to Corinne Hershkovitch, a French lawyer with decades of experience helping families to retrieve their stolen artworks, including five looted paintings hanging in the Louvre that were returned to the Jewish family from which they were stolen in 1999 — a move that set a precedent in France. “This case became very emblematic for me because everyone wanted to forget the unprecedented looting that was perpetrated at the time of the war,” Hershkovitch said of the 1999 returns. “Restitution prevents us from forgetting.”

Finding evidence for restitution

In 2019, the Gimpel heirs went to court to recoup the Derain paintings. But proving that the artworks had been stolen by the Nazis nearly 80 years earlier posed a challenge.

Sarah Tilotta/CNN
French lawyer Corinne Hershkovitch has decades of experience helping families reunite with possessions looted by the Nazis.

“It’s like a police or journalistic investigation but you can’t interview the witnesses,” said art provenance researcher Margaux Dumas, a PhD candidate at both University Paris-Diderot and the Technical University Berlin who worked with the family in their fight for restitution.

A photograph taken in René’s Paris living room became a critical piece of evidence. Captured sometime between 1916 and 1933, it showed the three Derain paintings in question hanging on the art dealer’s wall. It was the proof Paris Criminal Court needed to corroborate that Claire’s grandfather had once owned them.

Proving the artworks were later stolen, however, was much harder.

Supported by family archives, the five Gimpel heirs were adamant the Derain paintings were sold under duress when the Vichy regime’s antisemitic policies left René in need of money. But without an invoice or deed of sale, the French Ministry of Culture and the two museums argued that evidence of this was insufficient.

“You obviously can’t have a deed of sale because these sales were done under the table,” Claire said.

In August 2019, the Paris Criminal Court ruled in favor of the French government and the museums, stating that proof the three paintings were forcibly sold or confiscated “cannot be established with certainty.”

But a year later, the French Court of Appeals overturned this judgment. According to a letter dating from 1941 that was found in the family archives and seen by CNN, René instructed his housekeeper Odile Firer to “look after my friend Derain, who is a valuable man who must not be let down,” which the court interpreted as a request to sell the paintings.

Smithsonian Archives of American Art
René Gimpel and his family, in a photograph taken between 1891 and 1895. René is the child seen standing and wearing a striped shirt.

In its decision, the appeals court wrote that there are “precise, serious and concordant indications” that the Derain paintings were taken illegally or purchased under duress, thus making their sale “null and void.”

It was the first time a court had ruled that families seeking restitution should not be expected to produce evidence that was too difficult to obtain, considering the context in which the pieces were taken.

In 2020, seven years after they began their fight, the Gimpel heirs were finally reunited with the three Derain paintings. When asked by CNN why it had taken so long to return the artworks, the Troyes museum said that since the paintings were part of national collections, they “could not be returned to the Gimpel heirs without a court ruling.” The city of Marseille said that “the return of Derain’s work was one of the first measures taken by the Mayor of Marseille, Benoît Payan, at the start of his term of office (in 2020)” — although with a court ruling in place, Payan had been compelled to do so.

Despite the lengthy legal battle, Dumas said the Gimpel heirs were “somewhat lucky” as they could rely on extensive family archives — and because artworks that end up in museums are easier to track down. Dumas said this is often not the case for Jewish families trying to recover their ancestors’ stolen art.

A battle, not a dialogue

The Nazis systematically emptied the houses of Jewish people who had fled or been deported, meaning the scale of looting goes far beyond art.

“There are testimonies that they stole everything right down to the electrical outlets, the wallpaper,” explained Dumas, adding that in Paris alone, she believes 38,000 apartments were emptied.

Hershkovitch has also handled cases involving furniture, books, musical instruments and monetary losses.

Alain Robert/SIPA/AP
Marseille's mayor Benoit Payan gives a speech next to an André Derain painting titled ''Pinede, Cassis'' in January 2021 during a ceremony to return it to the family of René Gimpel.

The French Ministry of Culture estimates that “seizures of Jewish art collectors and dealers resulted in approximately 40,000 works looted from more than 200 people in France and Belgium” between July 1940 and August 1944. The ministry also states that claims made to the Artistic Recovery Commission (which operated between November 1944 and December 1949 to assist the recovery of lost pieces) total around 100,000 “works and works of art,” approximately 45,000 of which “were returned to their rightful owners between 1944 and 1950.”

“You have to understand that we’re not in a dialogue at all, we’re in a battle,” Hershkovitch told CNN of her efforts to reunite families with their stolen possessions.

But it’s a fight that has, she said, become easier thanks to changing public opinion — and the Gimpel court ruling three years ago. In 2019, the French government declared its “mission” to restitute cultural belongings that were stolen, forcibly sold or confiscated between 1933 and 1945, regardless of whether they were looted in France or are simply now located in France.

The French parliament adopted a new law streamlining the complex restitution process in July.

“Things have changed,” said Claire. “It took us four years to get photos of the backs of the paintings (usually one of the first places to look for identifying labels, tags or marks when checking provenance) from the museums. Now, if you ask for a photo of the back of a painting, you get it within six months.”

Today, the five Gimpel heirs have recovered six paintings, including a fourth Derain and one Monet, from French museums and private owners.

They’re still working to acquire hundreds of other artworks they also believe were stolen. While Claire admits there is little chance they will find everything, she is encouraged by their progress. “Mentalities are evolving,” she said. “Sure, it’s 80 years (since the end of World War II). But better late than never.”