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Report from Paris
by Adrian Darmon
  Tracing the Kann collection
The heirs of Jewish collector Alphonse Kann, from whom the Nazis stole hundreds of artworks during World War II, have asked two U.S museums to surrender important modernist paintings that disappeared from his home in Paris during the war.

Francis Warin, the representative of Kann's 11 heirs, said that a 1911 painting by Fernand Léger, titled Smoke over Rooftops, is now in the possession of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The painting was acquired in November 1942 at the Drouot auction center in Paris by the Louise Leyris Gallery and then sold to the Minnesota museum.

He also said that the Menil Collection in Houston has a 1907 painting by Henri Matisse titled Rivière aux Aloes that is listed among the Kann works seized by the Nazis. Warin noted that the work appeared in a photograph taken in the Kann apartment before the war.

The photograph also shows a 1913 still life painting by Picasso, Nature morte au papier Job, Warin added. He believes that this work may be the same as Still Life: (Job) (1915), which was acquired in 1945 for the Nelson Rockefeller collection and is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The heirs have made no claim against MoMA, however.

Another Kann Picasso, titled Violin and Music Score, has been found in Tokyo in the possession of a Japanese bank. A bronze by Auguste Rodin, titled The Shadow, has been located in the Museum of Sculpture in Copenhagen.

Warin has also been seeking the return of a major Georges Braque Cubist piece of 1911, Man with a Guitar, as well as three works by Juan Gris. These paintings are now in the possession of the French National Museum of Modern Art, and Warin awaits the decision of a Paris court regarding them.

Last but not least, Warin has discovered that many pieces of furniture that had belonged to Kann had been sold at Drouot during the war and bought by the town hall of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, west of Paris. The office of the mayor has so far declared that it had no knowledge of this purchase despite the existence of documents proving the contrary.

Kann, who carried out his college studies with Marcel Proust and later became a famous novelist, had amassed an impressive collection of paintings and art works in his mansion in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which was plundered in October 1940 by the Nazis and French collaborationists.

Kann spent the war years in London. He died in 1948 after recovering about half of his paintings, a few pieces of furniture and none of the archives that would have enabled him to search for over 100 missing works. Warin took up the investigation some 40 years later, using two inventories drawn up by the Einsatzstab Reichleiters Rosenberg (ERR), responsible for the pillaging of Jewish-owned works of art.

Trouble for the Wildenstein Institute
The Wildenstein Institute in Paris has now twice been dragged into court for refusing to include works in the catalogues raisonnés published under its authority. The cases involve works by Dutch artist Kees Van Dongen and by Amedeo Modigliani.

Works that are omitted from an artist's catalogue raisonné can be difficult to sell -- investing the authors of these guides with formidable power. Some collectors are proving themselves ready to challenge their decisions in court.

The first suit concerns a Van Dongen painting titled Chemise, which was bought for approximately $370,000 in the Paris salesrooms of Drouot in 1987. Despite being sold with a certificate by Paris dealer Paul Pétridès, Chemise was not slated to be included in the forthcoming Van Dongen catalogue raisonné. Without the listing, Christie's declined to accept the painting for auction.

In 1995 the collector sued the Wildenstein Institute for its refusal to include his painting in the Van Dongen catalogue raisonné. Two independent experts, Guy-Patrice Dauberville and Philippe Maréchaux, had concluded that Chemise was an authentic work by the artist.

The court dismissed the case and ruled that the Wildenstein Institute had caused the plaintiff no prejudice, as the Van Dongen catalogue had not yet been published. But the judge warned the Wildenstein Institute that the author of the catalogue would be guilty of a serious oversight if he omitted Chemise from his list.

The ruling is serious news for catalogues raisonné authors. It has already prompted the owners of a drawing by Modigliani to turn to a Paris court after Marc Restellini, the author working for the Wildenstein Institute, refused to include it in his catalogue of the artist.

The Modigliani ink and wash drawing of a young woman had been sold , for about $288,000 at Drouot on Mar. 20, 1991. In March 1998, the Wildenstein Institute informed the buyer that it questioned the work's authenticity and would not include it in the artist's catalogue raisonné.

Guy-Patrice Dauberville has been appointed by the court as expert for this case and his decision is due to be given at the end of December 1999.

Poulain-Le Fur drives for Sotheby's?
As it was disclosed last August, the Parisian auctioneers Poulain-Le Fur will hold sales for Sotheby's in Paris in new salesrooms at the Palais des Congrès, near the plush area of l'Etoile. The first joint sale is not of art, however, but of collectible cars.

On Dec. 13, the Poulain-Le Fur group will auction some 15 vehicles consigned by Sotheby's, including a 1927 Hispano Suiza T 49. The 15 autos all come from a single collector. The sale will also include several cars consigned for sale directly to Poulain-LeFur by other French collectors.

All cars usually sold by Sotheby's in Europe will be auctioned in the new 1,400-square-meter compound of the Palais des Congrès, which includes two special auction rooms totaling 600 square meters.

The modernistic new salesrooms were designed by Christian de Portzamparc with the assistance of his wife Elisabeth. The inaugural sale is a selection of fine paintings and 18th-century objects of art and furniture on Dec. 9, followed by a sale of modern paintings and Art Deco furniture on Dec. 12.

Sotheby's car department usually records a yearly turnover of £20 million (over $30 million) in sales in London and Zurich, having given up auto auctions in Monaco six years ago. Hervé Poulain, a former race car driver, is very competent in this field, according to Peter Arney, general manager of Sotheby's France.

The Poulain-Le Fur group, which is headed by Poulain and Rémy Le Fur, realized a turnover of 100 million francs ($16 million) in 1998, seventh among the 100 or so auctioneers working in the Parisian area.

From one royal to another?
The world's most expensive piece of French furniture has returned to the palace for which it was originally made. The 18th-century royal commode, made by J.H Riesener for the palace at Versailles and housed there until the French Revolution of 1789, sold for the record sum of $11.6 million last July in the Rothschild sale at Christie's London. The commode was bought by the wife of Christie's owner, François Pinault, in partnership with the French state. It has now found its original place in the King's library.

New chairman for Paris auctioneers
Dominique Ribeyre was elected as new chairman of the Paris Chamber of Auctioneers on Oct. 4, 1999, succeeding Joël Millon. The future of the chamber remains uncertain, however, in view of the forthcoming auction reforms designed to allow foreign auction houses to hold sales in Paris.

Bernard Buffet's suicide
French painter Bernard Buffet committed suicide on Oct. 4, 1999, at his home in Tourtour, Southern France. Aged 71, Buffet was suffering from Parkinson's Disease and was no longer able to work as he wished. Police said that Buffet died around 4 p.m after putting his head in a plastic bag attached around his neck with tape.

Buffet was born on July 10, 1928, in Paris and studied drawing and painting in 1943 before being admitted to the School of Beaux-Arts a year later. He exhibited his works in Paris for the first time in 1946 and found success during the mid-'50s.

A prolific painter who made over 8,000 works during a career which lasted over 50 years, Buffet applied his linear drawing style to landscapes, portraits, circus and religious scenes, nudes, still lifes and city views. He became immensely rich, and his works were much sought in Japan, where two museums are devoted to him. His best works were done between 1947 and 1955, a period during which he made anguished paintings that denounced poverty and the horrors of war.

French president Jacques Chirac said he was deeply sorrowed while Prime Minister Lionel Jospin stressed that Buffet had contributed enormously to France's reputation abroad. "He incarnated France's post-war sufferings and managed to express poverty, pain and penury with much force," he added.

French culture minister Catherine Trautmann said the country had lost one of its greatest painters. She regretted that he had not been acclaimed in his country whereas he had met success abroad and called for a major retrospective exhibition of his works in Paris.

ADRIAN DARMON writes from Paris on art and the art market..