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The tall windows open onto the Place du Palais-Bourbon, a stately cobble-stoned square on Paris’s Right Bank, right behind the National Assembly. It was this view that first enchanted the art dealer Elizabeth Royer-Grimblat when she bought the apartment in 2014 with her late husband, the writer and filmmaker Pierre Grimblat. The square looked to her like something de Chirico might have painted. She felt that it embodied Freud’s notion of the Uncanny, a sense of familiarity in strangeness. “I find it very peaceful,” Royer-Grimblat told me.
As I was to learn over the next few hours of my virtual visit, Royer-Grimblat is never satisfied with describing the surfaces of things. She probes deeply, drawing out histories and complex cultural associations. When I pointed this tendency out, she quoted Baudelaire: “ ‘Perfumes, colors, and sounds correspond’—That’s life.”
The first room we “visited” was her salon, centered around a semicircular sofa by Vladimir Kagan. Royer-Grimblat sounded almost ashamed of this space. “I have a room like this because it’s important to have a room like this,” she said, “if only to receive people.” Unlike almost everywhere else in her home, however, there was no mess, no piles of books. “It doesn’t resemble me at all,” she said.
Yet the salon abounded with subtle poetic touches: the rug designed by Jean Cocteau; the table lamp by Alberto Giacometti; and a scattering of small, golden, richly symbolic objects by midcentury French jeweler Line Vautrin, whom Royer-Grimblat collects in depth. There are several on the desk, including a feather-adorned cup containing colored pencils with which Royer-Grimblat compulsively doodles while on the phone.
“Not that I know how to draw at all,” she clarified. After finishing her art history studies in the 1980s, Royer-Grimblat felt lost. She knew that she didn’t want to be an art dealer, because she felt it would only lead to heartbreak. “I thought it was so sad to buy a painting, to love it, and to resell it.”
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But then she had an epiphany: Becoming an art dealer would allow her to reckon deeply with masterpieces, regardless of whether she kept them. “What mattered was simply to have had it in one’s hands, to research its history,” she said. “After that, things circulate. I don’t have the instinct to own things.” She added with a laugh: “And I don’t have the money!”
Over time, she nevertheless managed to accumulate a more-than-respectable collection. The artworks and furniture displayed in her apartment reflect her eclectic tastes. A second-century Roman folding stool coexists with a 19th-century rattan chair and an 18th-century silver flowerpot. A Hiroshi Sugimoto photograph shares a wall with a Hans Arp bas-relief. Scattered throughout are minor works by major artists: Giacometti, Picasso, Constable.
Royer-Grimblat describes each piece with the casual mastery of a seasoned art historian, setting it in proper context. Just as interesting to her as the work itself is its backstory—who made it for whom and when and why. She gives me accurate birth and death dates for all parties involved. The excitement in her voice is palpable.
It was this affinity for provenance that led to the most important endeavor of her life. In 1996, she was asked to help track down works that had belonged to Alphonse Kann, a Jewish dandy whose inestimable art collection was stolen by the Nazis during their occupation of France and subsequently dispersed to private collectors and museums from New York to Japan. Royer-Grimblat confesses she agreed “not for ethical reasons at first,” but because she was fascinated by Kann, a former schoolmate of Marcel Proust’s who is said to have inspired one of the characters of In Search of Lost Time—and because she wanted paintings to sell. But once she realized the enormity of the crime, she decided to take on the project pro bono. Like a benevolent Carmen Sandiego, she traveled the world in search of Kann’s collection and recovered more than 30 works, by the likes of Léger, Braque, and Matisse.
In the process, Royer-Grimblat became one of the most renowned art detectives on the planet. The archives from her various investigations take up most of the basement of her Paris home, with some documents even spilling over into the apartment itself. Since Pierre Grimblat died in 2016 at the age of 93, Royer-Grimblat—who is a few decades younger—has lived alone. Her books are sprawled out across the dining room table. Stacked to the side are well-worn volumes of a Pablo Picasso catalogue raisonné. Nestled within the elegant mess are her secret weapons: a magnifying glass for spotting clues, plus a can of Coke and a half-dozen caramels, to keep her working through the night. This, arguably, is the room that resembles her the most.
Our conversation lasted several hours as Royer-Grimblat spun detailed histories of every object in her home. When it was over, I had a few questions she couldn’t answer. She promised to look into them. “I’m a pretty good researcher, you know.”