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Letter from Paris
by Adrian Darmon
 
     
  Balthus sues Giacometti Foundation
French artist Baltasar Klossowski de Rola, who is perhaps better known as Balthus, has decided to sue the Giacometti Foundation for the return of a still life he gave to Alberto Giacometti over 30 years ago.

Before leaving France in 1959, Balthus had asked Giacometti to offer the painting to a waiter named Henri whom they had befriended at a Paris café. Balthus had written "to Henri" on the back of the painting, but Giacometti, who died in 1966, seems to have forgotten to make the gift.

Balthus is now 92, and recently discovered that the work had been included in the Giacometti estate and asked for its return. So far the foundation, which is headed by the American-born Mary Lisa Palmer, has rejected his claim. It is not known if the waiter is still alive. The painting is currently worth approximately $300,000.

A discovery for Bailly
A 17th-century painting representing St. Peter's Denial surprised onlookers at a regional auction in Nancy in eastern France on Mar. 19 when it soared well above its 100,000-franc opening bid to sell for 8.3 million francs -- about $1.2 million (without the buyer's premium). What was an unattributed work measuring 92 x 118 cm. turns out to be a lost painting by the French artist Louis Le Nain (1593-1648).

The buyer was Charles Bailly, the Parisian dealer who has struck gold several times in the past ten years with discoveries of works by Dutch artist Frans Post, the Flemish master Pieter Paul Rubens and the French painter Nicolas Poussin.

Before the sale, several reports suggested that the painting in question was reminiscent of Georges de La Tour or the Le Nain brothers -- Mathieu, Louis and Antoine -- but no scholars came forward with any attribution.

Bially won the work after an intense salesroom battle, with the final bid made on the telephone. Bially explained that he had gone to Nancy the day before the sale to examine the painting and that he had felt an intense emotion before this work.

"It had a great pictorial quality and the subject was very ambitious. I noticed the superb lapis-lazuli blue robe worn by St. Peter and the perfect condition of the canvas. This work was relined at the end of the 17th or the beginning of the 18th century. This was a French painting, a masterpiece of the 1630s," he said.

"Obviously, I was not the only one to sense that this was a very important work --thus the high price. I took an enormous financial risk, especially as I had no idea of its provenance on the day of the sale, since I had so little time to research the work," he added.

Later, in his library he found reference to a Le Nain St. Peter that had been in the collection of Cardinal Mazarin. In the 1661 inventory of the Cardinal's collection the St. Peter painting was described as being on canvas and showing the saint between two soliders and a maid. It carried an attribution to either Louis or Antoine Le Nain.

Bailly decided that this work must have been executed by Louis. Mathieu had died in 1677 and Antoine lacked Louis' genius for Caravaggesque effects -- the chiaroscuro on the faces of the subjects and the soldiers' armor, which is lit by a fire not seen on the canvas. All the more, Antoine would not have been able to create the emotional atmosphere expressed in this spectacular work.

"I cannot understand why the curators of our museums, who asked for photographs of that painting and even went to see it in Nancy, did not try to pre-empt it. They probably decided to let the buyer take a financial risk in acquiring it with the additional risk of being wrong," Bailly suggested.

Now, Bailly hopes that he will be permitted by the French state to sell his discovery abroad, as several collectors and U.S museums are quite eager to buy it -- though he might try to strike a deal with the Louvre first.

Auctioneer sues journalist
Paris auctioneer Jean-Claude Binoche has sued a journalist for implying that he sold a fake painting by Vincent van Gogh. In Le Figaro on Nov. 10, 1998, Jean-Marie Tasset reported doubts about the authenticity of a van Gogh titled Garden in Auvers, which Binoche sold in 1992 for 55 million French francs ($8.1 million).

Tasset's story suggested that the auctioneer had omitted to mention in his sale catalogue that the French painter Emile Schuffenecker, suspected of having produced van Gogh forgeries, had been the first owner of that painting.

The heirs of French banker Jean-Marc Vernes, who had bought the painting in 1992, four years before his death, have sued Binoche and Jacques Walter, the previous owner of the painting, claiming that this work is no longer saleable following the controversy stirred by Le Figaro.

Binoche counterattacked with a study conducted by the laboratory of the French museums, which concluded that Garden in Auvers was a genuine work by van Gogh. In addition, Musee d' Orsay curator Anne Distel found evidence that this work never belonged to Schuffenecker but that it had been in fact in the possession of Johanna van Gogh, the widow of Theo van Gogh, the painter's brother.

In the Mar. 30 court action, the journalist told the court that he had not described the painting as a fake but rather had only listed facts casting doubts on the authenticity of this work.

Garden in Auvers was offered for sale in December 1996, following Tasset's controversial article, but remained unsold. Binoche's counsel said he was confident that if the painting was again auctioned it would sell at a very good price. The court will deliver a verdict on May 4 and decide whether the auctioneer will be entitled to a claim for a 10 million francs ($1.5 million) damage payment from the newspaper and the journalist.

Success at the Paris Salon of Drawings
The 9th Paris Salon of Drawings, Mar. 29-Apr. 8, 2000, received a warm welcome from buyers, who rushed in the first day to acquire the top pieces exhibited there.

Over 3,700 guests attended the opening night gala, jamming the compact rooms of the Salons Hoche to admire 16th-century Italian drawings as well as French and Dutch 17th- and 18th-century pieces.

There was some frantic activity regarding purchases from collectors and curators from many museums, notably those of Cleveland, Washington, Paris and Glasgow or the Getty Museum and the Morgan Library.

The British Museum bought a drawing by Leon Bonvin, an artist who hanged himself in the woods of Meudon in 1866, for about $ 30,000 from the Talabardon & Gautier gallery. The work shows the interior of a tavern. The Parisian dealer Antoine Laurentin sold almost all his drawings during the first day, including works by Eva Gonzales and Ramon Pichot.

The Prouté Gallery sold 17 drawings almost immediately, including an ink and pen landscape by Guercino that was acquired by an American museum. Bruno de Bayser gave away a self-portrait by Edgar Degas for $147,000.

Agnew's was offering the study of a head of St. Sebastian by Frederico Barocci for approximately $367,000, while Colnaghi sold several drawings for $60,000 in the space of a few minutes.

Modern drawings were less in demand but a splendid ink and watercolor drawing by Leon Spilliaert titled Evening in Ostende was sold for $120,000 by Brussels dealer Patrick Derom.

Still many collectors complained about excessively high prices. Serge Nazarieff from Geneva claimed that a 16th-century work, sold at auction in London for some $4,000, was offered by Colnaghi at $100,000. "Many drawings that sold at auction in the $5,000 price range were offered at the Paris fair for ten times as much, said Nazarieff. "I thought this kind of speculation had ended in the 1970s."

Gisele Freund, 1912-2000
The German-born portrait photographer Gisele Freund died in Paris at age 71 on March 30. Born in 1912, Freund was given her first camera at age 15 by her father, a noted Jewish collector. In 1933 she fled the Nazis to Paris, where she befriended many intellectuals, including Jean Cocteau, André Malraux and André Breton. She published her first photo essay in Life in 1936, and did dust jacket photos for Malraux's Man's Fate (1935) and James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake (1939). In 1941 she sought refuge in South America, producing pictures of Evita Peron in 1950 that are particularly celebrated. After the war she returned to Paris, where her career included the official portrait of President François Mitterrand in 1981.


ADRIAN DARMON writes on art from Paris.