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A French Hissy Fit …

November 10, 2011

Antipathy between the French and English, as we know from Monty Python and others, goes back centuries … and it just got another revivifying poke in the eye.  Earlier this week London-based Weiss Gallery was told by French officials that a painting Weiss brought to the Paris Tableau art fair would not be allowed back out of the country because it was property of the French state. French officials claim it was stolen from the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse  … in 1818!  The Caravaggesque The Carrying of the Cross (c. 1632) by Nicolas Tournier was not unfamiliar to the art market.  Didier Aaron et Cie had the painting at their booth in Maastricht in 2010, where it was purchased by Weiss for EURO 400,000.  Weiss had it at Maastricht this year with a price tag of EURO 675,000.

The Carrying of the Cross, Nicolas Tournier (c.1590-1639)

According to one article the painting, “had been sold by Sotheby’s in Italy and later at the Maastricht art fair … The painting turned up in 2009 in Italy during the sale of an estate of a wealthy Florence art collector …” A search of the Sotheby’s sold lot archive shows yields lot 362 at the October 12, 2009 sale of works from the Florentine antiques dealers Salvatore and Francesco Romano.  The painting was listed as by a Caravaggesque Master with no provenance or exhibition/publication history, estimated at EURO 25,000-35,000, and a final sale price of EURO 54,750.

The Daily Mail quotes Mark Weiss: ‘We bought it in good faith from the French dealer [Didier Aaron et Cie] at a time when the Toulouse museum was refusing to accept that it was the Tournier, which had disappeared’.

Another complication is the lack of the painting’s appearance on the Art Loss Register, an internationally recognized database of stolen art.  Indeed, as ArtKnows blogger Tom Flynn wrote on November 9, the Art Loss Register gave the painting a clean bill of health.

Note that the database only goes back to the “1930s,” well after the painting’s theft.

The Art Tribune provides more interesting background.  Apparently, both Didier Aaron and Weiss Gallery approached the Musée des Augustins’s chief curator Axel Hémery (and author of the 2001 Tournier retrospective) about the painting. According to the Tribune: “The curator told us:”

I received a photograph of the painting before the auction but my first reaction was that I did not believe it. After Hervé Aaron [of Didier Aaron] bought it, he informed me, but it was shortly before Maastricht and I did not come to Paris to see it. Although it sounds incredible, I saw no connection to the museum painting. It was not until much later, after Weiss purchased it, following several messages from some of my colleagues, that I understood that this was the canvas that had disappeared from the museum after 1818.

The article’s author Didier Rykner goes on to conclude:

[B]ased on our legal knowledge (and well founded), the painting is indeed, in principle, the property of the Musée des Augustins. Works in French public collections are inalienable and imprescriptible, a fact we have always fought for here. This means that an object which enters a museum cannot be taken away, in any way, forever in time, which implies that although it may have disappeared for almost two hundred years, it will always belong to the establishment.

The dealers appear to have done their due diligence, but if the French government succeeds, greater depths of research will be required (starting with the Art Loss Register often touted by dealers and auctions houses as the ultimate authority on stolen art).

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