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letter from paris

by Adrian Darmon

Less than two weeks after acquiring 29.1 percent of the British auction house Christie's, French businessman François Pinault moved to take full control of the 232-year-old institution on May 18. Pinault offered to buy all outstanding Christie's shares through his holding company, Artemis, for some $1.17 billion. Christie's shares rose by 25 percent on the London stock exchange when the announcement was made.

A keen collector of modern and contemporary art works, Pinault plans to boost Christie's activities in France in view of forthcoming reforms in the auction trade here, which will to allow foreign auctioneers into the country for the first time. As little as 25 percent of existing French auction associations are expected to survive after the reforms, thanks to the economic might of Christies and its arch-rival Sotheby's. The French flavor that Pinault's ownership gives to Christie's is a blow to the leading Drouot Group of auctioneers, who are now left without a nationalistic argument regarding what they have called "a foreign invasion."

French Old Master paintings expert Eric Turquin has learned from a Paris court that he must guarantee the value of a painting that he had identified as a work of Italian master Andrea Solario (ca. 1600-1520), a work that in fact may be only a late-16th-century copy.

The painting, Jesus Christ with a Reed, was sold for FF4.5 million ($750,000) on June 27, 1994, by French auctioneer Jean-Jacques Mathias to Swiss dealer Bruno Meissner. In the catalogue Turquin listed the painting as an authentic work by Solario. After Meissner bought the painting, he had it cleaned -- and several specialists then identified the work as a late-16th-century copy by an unknown Flemish artist.

The Swiss dealer brought the case before a Paris court, which named two legal experts, one French, Edouard Bresset, and the other Italian, Pietro C. Marani. The two men determined that the painting was a copy of an original that had been lost long ago. They estimated its value at FF500,000 ($83,500) and Meissner then started proceedings to cancel the sale, ask for damages and have his money back.

Meissner had additional support in his claim from David Alan Brown, a prominent Solario specialist who had listed the painting as a copy in his Solario catalogue raisonné. The painting had also been offered for sale as a Solario at Sotheby's on July 11, 1979, when it carried an estimate of $50,000 but failed to sell, according to Meissner.

Turquin claimed in court that Brown had come to Paris to examine the work and had admitted that it was a genuine Solario. In addition, he said that Louvre curator Sylvie Beguin had given a similar opinion. However, neither Brown nor Beguin confirmed in court that they had authenticated the painting.

In the end, the judges determined that Turquin had acted in good faith and therefore had committed no fraud. However, they also canceled the sale as a result of the erroneous attribution and ordered Turquin to Meissner -- meaning that he would have to pay back some $750,000 if the actual consignor is unable to reimburse the sum. The judges stressed that Turquin should have been more cautious regarding his opinion.

For his part, Turquin is adamant that Brown and Beguin authenticated the painting. Unfortunately, in France museum curators are not allowed to deliver statements in writing and just give an oral opinion. In France, experts are responsible for their authentifications over a period of 30 years and it is not the first time that one of them has been confronted with a controversial matter. That is why so many works are offered for sale with no clear attributions and at low estimates.

A painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard showing a kneeling St. Peter almost passed unnoticed in a small Paris auction sale on Mar. 4, 1998, only to be identified as a work by the famous Rococo artist at the last minute. As a result it fetched FF8 million francs ($1,313,000), excluding buyer's premium, despite its poor condition. The painting was bought by Paris dealer Guy Ladrière, probably acting on behalf of Daniel Wildenstein, who is a keen collector of Fragonard's works.

The painting was first estimated at $8,200 the morning of the sale. The aforementioned Eric Turquin (who does not always have bad luck, it seems) had a look at it and determined it was a lost work by Fragonard. The painting was last seen in November 1976, when it was sold in Paris at the Verrier sale.

The price paid for St. Peter, which needs extensive restoration, almost equaled the Fragonard auction record of FF8.2 million for a Fragonard painting of two young women playing with a small dog on a bed. That price was reached in a sale conducted by Jacques Tajan on December 12, 1995.

Oddly, when told of the importance of the work, its owner gave auctioneer Joel Millon the go-ahead to sell it right away, rather than postponing the auction and including the painting in a catalogued sale. Specialists here said that if the painting had been offered in a more prestigious sale it might have not reached such a high price because of its poor condition.

Many Paris sales conducted without catalogues are full of surprises. A few years ago, a painting representing Saint Jerome estimated to go for a mere $1,500 was swiftly withdrawn when it was discovered that it was a genuine work by Georges de la Tour. The work eventually fetched $ 1,650,000 at Sotheby's Monaco and would probably have reached the $3-million mark had it not been pre-empted by the French government.

An autograph letter by French poet Arthur Rimbaud fetched an astronomic FF3 million ($490,000), not inclusive of buyer premium, in a sale held at Drouot on March 20, 1998. The letter was pre-empted by the Bibliothèque Nationale. Called "letter of the clairvoyant," the 11-page manuscript contains three poems: "My little lovers," "Parisian war song" and "Crouchings," and has been called the founding manifesto of modern poetry.

The 10 letters, written by Rimbaud between 1871 and 1885, were sold for a total of some $1.6 million. All were pre-empted by the government during this sale and will go into public collections.

The sale of art and antiques owned by actress Jacqueline Delubac, former wife of writer and film-maker Sacha Guitry, totaled almost $5 million at Drouot-Montaigne on March 16, 1998. A pair of two 18th-century Chinese blue porcelain vases with bronze mountings fetched $565,000 inclusive of buyer premium, while a 1908 painting of a naked maid on a bed by Kees van Dongen sold for $1,362,000. Georges Rouault's painting Fathma went for $418,000, five times above the pre-sale estimate.

ADRIAN DARMON writes on art from Paris.