PARIS — 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, the 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 Ms. Moulin filed a criminal complaint against the Wildensteins, French authorities ordered a preliminary investigation by their anti-art-trafficking squad. Investigators are now sifting through sepia-colored World War ll
in which 10 paintings belonging to Ms. Moulin’s father, Max Heilbronn, were taken. Heilbronn was a member of the Resistance whose French Jewish family was forced out of the historic domed Galeries Lafayette store on Boulevard Haussmann in Paris and replaced by collaborators during World War II. He was captured, beaten and imprisoned in Buchenwald with other French resisters, including Étienne Moulin, who later married Mr. Heilbronn’s daughter, Ginette, and took charge of the Galeries Lafayette.
The family has recovered four of the works taken, including a Renoir painting of pastel roses that the family spotted when it came up for sale at Christie’s auction house in 2004. Two Pissaro landscapes from the bank vault were also recovered after the war from the Berlin home of Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second in command.
Even now, though, seven decades after the war, more than half of the artworks taken from Jewish families in France and Belgium during World War II remain missing.
Alexandre Bronstein, a member of the family whose sculpture was found in the Wildenstein vault, said new clues could come with the opening of the archives from a 1949 war-crimes trial of a German diplomat who organized the looting. The records were sealed by France after the trial and are not scheduled to become available until 2024.
What drives Ms. Moulin to keep searching after so many years?
“This painting represents some of the history of our family,” she said. “It was my grandson who pushed me to react. He doesn’t understand how this could happen.”
Ms. Moulin said that in the 1950s, her mother, Paulette Heilbronn, met with an art dealer who had a photograph of the painting, and that he pledged to recover it. But when Ms. Heilbronn approached the dealer again, he told her it was in the possession of people who were “untouchable,” Ms. Moulin said
Years later the family discovered startling references to the missing painting in the 1979 and the 1996 editions of Daniel Wildenstein’s five-volume inventory, or catalogue raisonné, of Monet’s work.
Such catalogs list all known authenticated works by an artist and serve as something of an imprimatur of their authenticity. No major auction house, for example, will sell a work as a Monet unless it is listed in the Wildenstein inventory. Both editions of the catalog mentioned the missing painting’s being in a private collection, fueling suspicions among the Moulins that the Wildensteins either had the painting or knew where it was, Ms. Moulin said.
But Ms. Moulin said the Wildensteins repeatedly stymied her family’s inquiries. 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 the Wildenstein Institute case, according to confidential French judicial records. That case is an outgrowth of the family’s long-running internal clash over the multimillion-dollar estate of Daniel Wildenstein, Guy Wildenstein’s father.
The elder Wildenstein’s widow, Sylvia Roth, pursued lawsuits against, her stepson Guy until her death in 2010 and accused the family of hiding its wealth and artworks through trusts in offshore accounts. The raid on the Wildenstein Institute was part of the fact-finding in that case.
“When we heard about these strange stories, I thought it was the right moment to struggle to get back the painting,” said Guillaume Houzé, 30, a grandson of Ms. Moulin’s.
In recent years the quest to find the missing Monet has carried as far as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It possesses a Monet that is described as a near twin of the missing painting. Its work, “Torrent of the Petite Creuse at Fresselines,” was purchased by the Wildensteins in 1958 from a private collector and then sold to another private 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 whereabouts of the other painting was taken from the Wildenstein catalog.
Last summer the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a New York-based organization that tries to arrange for the restitution of property to Holocaust survivors and their heirs, asked the museum if there was any chance that their painting might be the Heilbronns’ missing Monet.
The museum said no, that the paintings are clearly different. It also showed the organization a typed, unsigned English translation of a 1961 letter in French from Max Heilbronn to Daniel Wildenstein, in which Mr. 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 signed by Mr. Heilbronn.
“There’s no question that this is not the canvas,” said Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the Met. He noted that there had never been a formal challenge to the painting.
“The Met has made its collections available to scholars and to students,” he said, “and, when necessary to people doing research on paintings for legal questions. There is nothing hidden here.”
The person who could perhaps provide the most information about the mystery, Daniel Wildenstein, is now buried below two obelisks in Montparnasse cemetery here. In 2001, a few months before he died at 84, Ms. Moulin had her New York lawyer ask him why he reported in his 1996 catalog — as he had in the 1979 version — that her painting was held by a private collector.
She got her answer by mail a few weeks later. The brief letter was sent out by the Wildenstein Institute, dated Sept. 12, 2001, and it carried 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 or its whereabouts.