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Paris News
by Adrian Darmon
The controversy surrounding the authenticity of Vincent van Gogh's painting Garden in Auvers was ended on June 25, 1999, when French museum officials announced that laboratory tests had proved the work had been produced by the artist himself.

A group of art historians, journalists and art collectors had alleged that several works listed in the van Gogh catalogue raisonné were fakes, including Garden in Auvers. The argument was that the work was produced either by Dr. Gachet, a close friend of the artist who cared for him at the end of his life, or by Claude-Emile Schuffenecker, a painter from the Pont Aven school.

The controversy prevented the sale of Garden in Auvers by the heirs of French banker Jean-Marc Vernes, who had hoped it would fetch over $9 million at auction.

Measuring 65 by 81.3 cm, this painting had been produced by van Gogh a few days before his death in July 1890. The national conservation lab conducted several exacting tests before concluding that it had indeed been painted at the end of the 19th century.

The five-day sale of the contents of the Château de Groussay near Paris, June 1-4, organized by Sotheby's with the assistance of two French auctioneers, was a tremendous success.

Sotheby's expected a turnover of some 100 million FF ($16 million) for the 10,000 items in the collection of millionaire Charles de Beistegui, but that estimate was surpassed on the first night with a 115 million FF total. Some 25,000 visitors packed the rooms of the Château during the four days preceding the sale.

Active bidders in the salesroom included such important dealers as Bernard Steinitz and Alexis Kugel. However, the real battle took place over the phone. Among the astonishing prices were 2.5 million FF ($400,000) for an Italian pedestal table with micromosaic top from 1830; 1.7 million francs ($272,000) for a pair of ebony and blackened wood console tables; and 680,000 FF ($108,800) for an early 19th-century English mirror.

A bronze sculpture of a rearing horse done in the Baroque style went for ten times its presale high estimate, selling for 500,000 FF ($80,000). A pair of scissors made in 1901 in London fetched 135,000 FF ($21,600), well over its estimate of 4,000-6,000 FF. A magnifying glass sold for 38,000 francs ($6,080).

Kugel bought two drawings by the French artist Jacques Rigaud (1681-1754) for 280,000 FF ($46,080). Two others sold for 650,000 FF ($104,000) and 680,000 FF ($108,800). A French museum pre-empted the sale of the 1827 Sevres biscuit statuette representing the Duke of Bordeaux, which was listed as a national treasure; it went for one million francs ($160,000), certainly above its 500,000 FF estimate.

Meanwhile two 18th-century Meissen potpourri vases went for 4 million FF ($640,000). Those present at the sale found it hard to assess certain bids, which went far beyond all expectations and believed that the market had gone mad -- since the name of Beistegui is far from having the same aura as the Duke of Windsor or Jackie Onassis.

Sales results at Art 30 Basel, June 16-21, have led some observers to compare today's art market to the great speculative wave of the late 1980s. A monumental wood sculpture by British artist Henry Moore was offered at $6.5 million at PaceWildenstein while Soho dealer Tony Shafrazi featured a 1991 triptych by Francis Bacon priced at $9 million.

Several sales took place during the opening of the fair. Damien Hirst's medicine cabinet sculpture Anarchy sold at Gagosian for $300,000 and a painting by the same artist, I Love This Life (1999) went for $ 220,000 at Jay Jopling. Andy Warhol's self-portrait was sold at Anthony d'Offay for $800,000, while the artist's Hammer and Sickle (1976) at Thomas Ammann, went for about $400,000.

Zurich dealer Bruno Bischofberger sold all his watercolors by Francesco Clemente at $25,000 each, while several collectors rushed to buy Sylvie Fleury's silver art objects modeled on Chanel perfume bottles, Nike sneakers and Kelly bags. Seven out of eight of these bags were sold at $15,875 each.

Benefiting from the good climate prevailing in auction rooms, many dealers have been exhibiting works by contemporary auction stars. An early Charles Ray photograph, Plank piece 1-2 (1973), produced in an edition of seven, sold at $125,000 almost instantly, while an assemblage by Christopher Wool went at $175,000, following the artist's new $425,000 auction record. Photographs by Thomas Struth, Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman also sold well.

A painting by French 17th-century master Nicolas Poussin, lost since 1713 but nevertheless considered one of the artist's best works, was recently rediscovered in a house near Marseilles in Southern France. Titled The Vision of Saint Françoise Roman, the work was acquired by the Louvre Museum with a special donation made by the Friends of the Louvre Association.

This work came to light last year when its owner contacted an auctioneer about selling it. Paris expert Eric Turquin certified the painting as a genuine Poussin and estimated its value at 55 million FF ($9 million). In the end the owner decided to sell it to the Louvre for 45 million FF ($7.2 million). The painting was in remarkable condition except for a small tear suffered in 1946 when it fell over a petrol lamp.

A painting by 17th-century Dutch master Gerrit Berckheyde (1638-1698) of Saint Bavon Church in Haarlem (1666) fetched 26 million FF ($ 4.1 million) at Hotel Drouot in Paris on June 16. The oil, which measures ca. 61 by 85 cm and carried a modest estimate of 3 million FF, had been acquired in 1830 by a French collector and had remained in the possession of his family in a castle in Central France. It was rediscovered a few months ago by Paris auctioneer Dominique Ribeyre and the Old Master expert René Millet. The sale represents the highest price so far this year at a French auction; the painting went to an anonymous French collector.

Meanwhile, a Crucifixion produced between 1335 and 1340 by the Italian Master of Giovanni Barrile, a pupil of Giotto, fetched 1,286 million FF ($2 million, including buyer premium) at Drouot on June 11. Sold by the auction group Delorme & Fraysse with the assistance again of René Millet, this 14th-century tempera painting on panel was listed as a national treasure and could not be exported from France. Despite such a handicap, the work fetched an impressive price and was finally pre-empted by the Louvre museum.

The identity of the artist is not known, though he assisted Giotto from 1328 to1333 at the Court of Naples. His name was derived from some frescoes he produced in the San Lorenzo Maggiore Church of Naples for Giovanni Barrile, a nobleman attached to King Robert of Anjou.

In the field of manuscripts, a 1472 edition of Dante's Divine Comedy, of which 12 copies have survived in the world (including three in France), was sold for 5.1 million FF ($809,523) by the Piasa auction group on June 16. This rare book had been estimated at a mere 500,000 FF, and the final bid was in fact a world record for this edition and a French record for any printed book. This copy is the last in private hands.

ADRIAN DARMON writes on art from Paris.