French Hold UK Gallery Hostage For Stolen Painting

Stolen Art

French government places an export ban on ‘stolen’ 17th Century painting being displayed at a French art fair by London’s Weiss gallery

The Carrying of the Cross by the French master Nicolas Tournier had been bought last year for 400,000 euros by the Weiss Gallery, and had been transported to France to be displayed in a French art fair. But the French government claims that the painting is in fact stolen property, having been mysteriously missing for nearly 200 years. And now that the painting has been returned to France, they are determined not to let it leave their sights again, placing an export ban on the work to prevent it from leaving the country.  

In the words of the French Culture Ministry, ‘This work is an inalienable part of French culture. We claim it is the property of the state. It is not going anywhere.’ But the Weiss Gallery, speaking to the Independent, argue that ‘There is not a scrap of evidence that this painting was stolen’: ‘Many paintings in that period went missing but that does not mean that they were stolen’. Even if the painting had been stolen, the gallery exonerates itself on the rationale that they ‘bought this painting in good faith’, and would, furthermore, be willing to ‘sell it at a reasonable price back to the Toulouse museum, where we accept that it belongs’.

The painting was created on commission for the Eglise des Pénitents Noirs in Toulouse in 1630. During the French Revolutions, it was confiscated and placed in a Toulouse museum, from which it went missing in 1818. In 2009, after nearly two centuries, it emerged in Florence. That year, Sotheby’s sold the painting (then ascribed to ‘a follower of Caravaggio’) for €57,500 as a component of a collection created by Italian collector and dealer, Salvatore Romano (1875-1955).

The work was bought by French dealer, Hervé Aaron, who identified it as a work by Tournier, and, in 2010, sold it to the Weiss gallery for €400,000. Crucially, at this point, the Toulouse Museum had refused to recognise the work as a genuine Tournier.

With the French government seeking to confiscate the work, and the Weiss Gallery demanding a knocked-down but fair price, we can now expect a protracted legal battle between the two parties. Words Thomas Keane © 2011 ArtLyst


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