Polack already had made her reputation abroad, as a member of an international task force in Germany following the discovery of around 1,500 works squirreled away by Cornelius Gurlitt, whose father, Hildebrand, bought artworks for Hitler.
While working for the task force, she uncovered the key to the Dorville story. She looked at the back of a portrait by the Impressionist painter Jean-Louis Forain and discovered a yellowing label, with an item number from the catalog of auction in Nice. “CABINET d’un AMATEUR PARISIEN,” it read, with no other information about the seller’s identity.
Intrigued, she traveled to the city, and uncovered in public archives the sale catalogs, the auction minutes, the identity of the seller and documents proving the involvement of the Vichy government’s Commissariat for Jewish Questions. Working with a genealogical firm, she located and then befriended the Dorville heirs.
“Her tenacity, her combativeness is incredible,” said Philippe Dagen, an art historian and critic for Le Monde newspaper who wrote a book on looted art with Polack.
“The Indiana Jones of Looted Paintings,” is how Le Point magazine has described her.
Nearly eight decades after the auction, the consequences of the sale in Nice continue to haunt France, pitting the French government against Dorville’s heirs, reviving the ugly history of the Louvre’s involvement in a problematic sale and putting Polack in an uncomfortable position.
Dorville’s heirs contend that the sale of his artworks was forced under the wartime anti-Jewish laws, making it an illegal act of “spoliation” or looting. They argue that, had the government given them the proceeds from the auction, perhaps the five family members who perished at Auschwitz might have found a way to survive.