A multi-million pound auction in London last night illuminated, but did not solve, one of the great unsolved mysteries of the art world: what happened to the superlative collection of impressionist and modern art – up to 10,000 works – assembled by the greatest of all 20th-century French collectors and dealers, Ambroise Vollard?
Since Mr Vollard's death in a car crash in 1939, only part of his collection has been accounted for. Many hundreds of paintings are known to have been sold by his heirs to museums and private collectors all over the world. Hundreds of others – including works by masters like Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso – are known to be in store in the cellars of the national museum in Belgrade. Another 140 works, including paintings by Rénoir, Degas, Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso, were "forgotten" in a Paris bank vault for 40 years until 1979. For another three decades, they were the object of a 15-way legal tug-of-war, which was settled in 2006 by the highest French court in favour of Mr Vollard's descendants.
The first of these paintings – never seen in public before its display in Paris in recent weeks – was to be sold by Sotheby's last night. The spectacularly colourful canvas, called Arbres à Collioure (Trees in Collioure), was painted by the fauve, or post-impressionist, artist André Derain in 1905.
The remainder of the contents of "Vollard's Vault", including an early painting by Cézanne of his boyhood friend, the novelist Emile Zola, will be sold in Paris next week. Samuel Valette, of Sotheby's, describes the collection as a "time capsule ... a slice of history, perfectly preserved, which suddenly reappears".
The history of the Vollard mini- collection, "lost" in a Paris bank from 1939 to 1979, is dark and fascinating. It starts with a friendship between the celebrated art dealer and a penniless, young Croatian Jew. It continues with a road accident, allegations of murder, the Holocaust and a 25-year legal action. This story is, however, only a small part of the larger saga of the main Vollard collection of between 5,000 and 10,000 works of art, hundreds of which remain unaccounted for 71 years after his death.
Ambroise Vollard was a Paris art dealer who befriended and discovered many of the great French or French-based painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a friend of Auguste Renoir; he revived interest in the reclusive Cézanne; he gave Picasso his first Paris show and Henri Matisse his first solo exhibition.
Vollard bought, sometimes in bulk, the canvasses of unknown painters who went on to become international celebrities. His mansion in the Rue Marignac in Paris was stuffed with impressionist, post-impressionist and cubist art. He never made a full inventory or named a clear heir.
In July 1939 Vollard died, aged 73, after his chauffeur-driven limousine skidded on a wet road as he returned to Paris from the country. Some art historians still say he was murdered.
Four years earlier, Erich Slomovic, the 20-year-old son of a Yugoslav Jewish tailor, had turned up at Vollard's home. The pair had corresponded when Slomovic was an art-mad 13-year-old. The dealer offered the young Yugoslav a job and, just before his death in 1939, also gave him over 500 works in circumstances which have never been explained.
Slomovic put 141 of the works into a Société Générale vault in his father's name and took 400 paintings back to Yugoslavia. When the Nazis invaded in 1942, the young man, his brother and father were arrested and killed in a mobile gas chamber.
His mother survived. The paintings had been hidden in the cavities of the walls of a farm and Mrs Slomovic offered them to Tito's Communist state in 1944, just before she was killed in a train crash.
The paintings were then recovered from the premises of a small art dealer in Belgrade and transferred to the national museum where they remain in storage to this day – their ownership disputed between the Serb state and Vollard's heirs.
The 141 paintings remained in the Société Générale vault, and then in storage in Nantes, until 1979. With Slomovic dead, no one suspected what riches the boxes might contain. Finally, the bank grew tired of the non-payment of its storage fees and examined the contents. An attempt was made to sell some of the paintings in 1981 but the auction was halted when 15 ownership claimants came forward, They included various branches of the Vollard and Slomovic families and the Yugoslav state.
A meandering legal case was finally settled by France's highest appeal court, the Cour de Casstion, in favour of some of the Vollard heirs, in 2006.
Two questions remain. What is to become of the 400 works held by the Serb national museum? They were alleged by a French writer, Jean-Christophe Buisson, in a recent book to be "every day a little more nibbled away by rats, time and oblivion".
And what happened to hundreds of other works, believed to have been in Vollard's possession at his death, which have never been found?