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letter from paris

by Adrian Darmon  

Alberto Giacometti
Grande femme debout III

Claude Monet
Sandviken, Norway
   The Giacometti estate battle
The estate of Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), consisting of hundreds of sculptures, paintings, watercolors, drawings and documents worth perhaps an estimated $150 million-$180 million, is presently at the center of a ferocious battle regarding its future disposition. The dispute has only intensified since the death in 1993 of the artist's widow, Annette Giacometti.

In her will, Annette provided for the establishment of a Giacometti foundation, to be managed by the U.S.-born Mary Lisa Palmer, who was Giacometti's secretary for over 20 years. Annette Giacometti had provided funds for a future foundation and bought a $2.5-million building to house the collection.

The French culture ministry, however, has blocked the formation of a foundation, saying its mission needs to be clarified. In addition, Bruno Giacometti, the brother of the artist, as well as the nephews of Alberto's sister are feuding with Palmer over the disposition of the estate. Palmer is presently pursuing a court case claiming that Annette invested her with the moral right to oversee Alberto Giacometti's works.

The culture ministry probably harbors fears that a foundation could be mismanaged. Recent scandals have hit both the Vasarely and Jan Arp foundations, with the former facing charges of mismanagement and the latter accused of being literally ransacked, with dozens of Arp plasters being sent to Germany without official authorization.

The Giacometti estate's legal heirs are Annette's two brothers, Michel and Claude Arm, who live in Switzerland. They are required to pay death duties on the estate, however, amounting to 45 percent of the estate's value. The Arm brothers could conceivably sell part of the collection at auction to pay the taxes. Or they could be allowed, according to the special French tax provision called "dation," to give the nation a 45 percent share of the collection. This would be an ideal solution for French museums, many of which have few Giacometti works in their collection.

Meanwhile, Giacometti's works have been stored in a safe place and might remain inaccessible to the public for quite a long time.

Poussin rediscovered
A painting attributed to 17th-century Roman artist Pietro Testa that sold at Sotheby's London in October 1995 for $260,000 is now said to be a major work by Nicolas Poussin worth as much as $17 million. The painting, believed to represent the pillaging of Carthage, belonged to the heirs of Ernest Onians, a businessman who made a fortune in the ham industry. Two important dealers, Hazlitt and Mould, vied ferociously for the work in bidding that started at $17,000 and ended at $260,000, with Hazlitt the victor.

The canvas was quite dirty and could have been a copy. But after the sale, the canvas was carefully examined and experts managed to discern, partly hidden behind a horde of horsemen, the image of a gold menorah, suggesting that the painting actually depicted the pillaging of Jerusalem. Poussin is known to have executed such a work in 1626 for Cardinal Francesco Barberini. According to the inventory of Barberini's collection, the Sotheby's canvas has the same dimensions as the Poussin work. X-rays show traces of sketching and changes in lines that repudiate the idea that the work is that of a copyist.

Poussin expert Denis Mahon believes the painting is by Poussin, as does Pierre Rosenberg, head of the French museums. Now the question is whether the heirs of Ernest Onians will pursue Sotheby's for compensation for having sold the painting 60 times under its true value.

Who will authenticate Renoir?
François Daulte, the reigning authority on Pierre-Auguste Renoir, is seriously ill and has lately been unable to authenticate works by the Impressionist artist. The news has led to speculations in Paris about who might succeed him, some being ready to challenge certain of his previous authentications.

Japanese and American collectors have long relied on Daulte's certificates in their purchases of works by Renoir. Among his possible successors are Guy-Patrice Dauberville, owner of the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, who has already authenticated many Renoir's works. Dauberville is already known to be less lenient than Daulte and some dealers fear they may have a harder time obtaining certificates from him. Another possible successor is the Wildenstein Foundation, which has taken over the Vlaminck and Modigliani catalogues.

Experts in France are legally responsible for their authentications and any mistake can result in heavy damage payments. As a result, cautious experts will look to support their judgments with provenance. However, provenance does not mean much if one remembers that forgers were active during the turn of this century and that many well-to-do families bought fakes that they believed were genuine.

At the same time, people can still find hidden treasures at public sales. For example, in December 1994, an unemployed dreamer who roamed salesrooms and flea markets in search of "treasures" purchased a work at Drouot for $150. It showed a mountain landscape and had the name "Monet" written in pencil on the back of the frame. He sought the opinion of a well-known Paris expert, whose verdict was like the blade of a guillotine. "This work is vulgar and has no value," said the expert.

Undeterred, the young man went to the library of the Centre Georges Pompidou and found in Monet's catalogue a series of similar paintings produced in Norway in 1895. He also discovered that out of eight works, four were unaccounted for. After having the painting restored he went to Sotheby's, where he was told he would have great difficulty in obtaining an authentication. He nevertheless insisted and the Sotheby's expert finally agreed to send a photo to the Wildenstein Foundation. Three weeks later it was confirmed that the painting was a Monet and it fetched $200,000 in a London sale on June 28, 1995.

Russian collection in dispute
Russian authorities are claiming that an extensive collection of Soviet avant-garde art, presently on view at Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum on loan from the Tchaga-Khardjiev Foundation, is a national treasure that was illegally exported from Russia. The Tchaga-Khardjiev Foundation now holds the estate of the late writer and art historian Nicolaï Khardjiev and his wife, Lidia Tchaga. It includes about 1,000 works by Russian avant-garde artists as well as extensive archival materials.

Khardjiev worked for LEF, a major art publication in Moscow in the early '30s, and became close to many Soviet avant-gardists. He worked with Malevich to write his memoirs, and considered himself the historian of a movement that was destroyed by Stalinism.

Living in a tiny apartment among hundreds of works and thousands of extraordinary documents, Khardjiev saw many of his friends arrested and sent to the Gulag. The 89-year-old Khardjiev finally was able to emigrate to Holland in 1992, and the Gmurzynska Galerie in Cologne managed to transfer his collection to Germany.

In 1993 Khardjiev and his wife moved to Amsterdam but the old man did not manage to adapt to his new existence and lived in almost complete seclusion. In Amsterdam, Lidia Tchaga's tyrannical temper gradually discouraged friends from keeping in touch with the couple and she was left to turn to Boris Abarov, a Russian exile in Holland, to take care of her interests. The newspaper Le Monde has described Abarov as a profiteer, however, who sought to gain control of the valuable Tchaga-Khardjiev art collection by transferring it to a foundation that he would control. In November 1995, Lidia Tchaga died after a fall from a staircase and Abarov was accused a few weeks later by Anna Gourevich, a friend of Lidia, of having caused her death.

At this point, the future of the collection is uncertain. Khardjiev made no precise inventory, though a 1993 list, made when the collection was transferred from Moscow to Germany, includes 1,355 works. Among these are 140 drawings by Malevich as well as his Red Square, plus dozens of works by Larionov, Gontcharova, Filonov, Lissitsky and Tatlin.

The foundation is now controlled by Michel Privé, a notary who is in charge of the estate. Privé has denied any suggestion of irregularity, saying via his lawyer that he needs time to work out the details of the foundation. The Dutch daily De Volksrant, however, has claimed that eight Lissitsky gouaches offered for sale by the Gmurzynska Gallery for $1 million came in fact from the Khardjiev. Privé responded that certain pieces had to be sold to meet costs.

Now all eyes are turned towards Moscow, where the Russian authorities seem determined to recover at least the documents relating to the Soviet avant-garde movement that they claim are of national importance. The fate of the collection is another complex matter and so far Moscow has not officially approached Dutch authorities for its restitution.

ADRIAN DARMON writes on art from Paris.