A Masterpiece May Be Auctioned off in Enghien (Wallonia)

21/5/13 : We added another update to this article ; fortunately, the idea of selling the work seems to have been definitely abandoned.

Master of the Virgo inter Virgines,
last fourth of the 15th century
Oil on Panel - 79 x 65 cm
Enghien, Hôpital Saint-Nicolas
Photo : Cercle Archéologique d’Enghien

20/5/13 - Art sale - Enghien (Wallonia), Saint Nicolas Hospital - Readers might remember the plan to sell the painting The Soler Family by Picasso in Liège (January 1989-March 1990) or, more recently in the spring of 2012, the suggestion, though with little media coverage, made by the alderman for Culture in the city of Tournai at the time, to sell off one of the two Fantin-Latour paintings at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Fortunately, the last project had provoked the ire of the Ministre régional de la Culture of the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, Fadila Laana, who during a parliamentary session of the Communauté française in April of that same year, had asserted that "she would never authorize any museum located in the Communauté française to cede certain works in order to finance potential renovation or extension work", adding that the sale of museum works runs contrary to the decrees which apply in the Communauté française in Belgium.

Today, the Board of Directors of the CPAS (Centre public d’aide social) of the city of Enghien is seriously considering the deaccessioning of the most valuable piece in its collections, the panel of the Lamentation by the Master of the Virgo inter Virgines to reduce its deficit and meet current expenses. This Thursday, 23 May, the question of whether the painting should be sold will be discussed at the Municipal Council meeting in Enghien. Supporters in defense of heritage will fight the initiative.

To refresh everyone’s memory, the Master of the Virgo inter Vergines is an anonymous painter who was active in the former Low Countries in the last fourth of the 15th century. Less than twenty paintings, scattered throughout the world’s leading museums, have been attributed to him. The only painting by this artist in Belgium is precisely the one residing in Enghien. It was donated by Sister Rosalie Carion in 1815 when she joined the community of Soeurs hospitalières of Saint Augustine. The work has decorated the Saint Nicolas hospital for one and a half centuries and was restored at extensive cost by the Institut Royal du Patrimoine artistique in 1968 before the hospital became the headquarters for the CPAS of Enghien [1].

About a year ago a discreet inquiry into the estimated market value of the painting was addressed to a prestigious English auction house. A very attractive amount was quoted. Since then, this sum has been turning heads in the city. Besides the financial arguments put forward to justify the need of selling this artistic treasure, the persons behind the project have formulated even more surprising excuses. The fact that the artist is Dutch - which remains to be proven -, would mean that this would not be detrimental to the cultural heritage of Enghien ! This is the same as if Bruges were to sell Michelangelo’s Virgin with Child because he is Italian and not Flemish or like Liège and Tournai, with the Spanish Picasso and the French Fantin-Latour. Also, the sale would not really mean much to the city since the persons supporting the project claim that 98% of the residents of the city did not even know the painting existed. One of the reasons for this being perhaps that although Enghien owns a very rich artistic heritage, envied probably by other medium-sized cities in Wallonia, it practically no longer has a museum with a clearly designated curator or administrator to educate the public concerning a museum’s various missions, preserve its heritage, provide research facilities and act as a depository of collective memory.
Some valuable art works of the CPAS, such as the Lamentation by the Master of the Virgo inter Virgines have been installed in a room with a reinforced door inside the Maison Jonathas, which is in fact supposed to be a museum for the city but which provides very limited access for the general public making it difficult to enter.

The sale of the painting is currently being considered by the city of Enghien and has stirred up a controversy. The Société royale archéologique of Enghien, consulted for its opinion, of course expressed its opposition to the idea. Will they be heard ? Alas, this masterpiece seems to be ill-fated. Owned by a municipal institution of social welfare, it cannot fall under the regulations prohibiting the principle - more of a custom than a law- of deaccessioning cultural assets belonging to a museum. There is indeed a decree issued by the Communauté française on 11 July 2002 which concerns only the listing of major art works of Wallonian heritage, at most a few objects in each museum. Strangely enough, the Lamentation by the Master of the Virgo inter Virgines has until now eluded the attention of heritage officials and can thus be sold without any obstacles. This work is however a major element of Wallonian heritage. It is the most important painting of a "Primitive of the Low Countries" in the Region ! German and Dutch museums have already expressed an interest in acquiring it.

Is there any hope of a moral and visionary awakening of the municipal authorities in Enghien to make them aware of the disastrous consequences of the sale of this invaluable artistic treasure in terms of the resulting image for them, the city itself, the Region and the Communauté française, all of which have been duly warned ? The Société royale archéologique of Enghien has already scheduled a one day international seminar in its activities program in order to study this masterpiece.

Version française

La Tribune de l’Art, jeudi 23 mai 2013


Update of 21 May 2013 : We received this email from the Bourgmestre of Enghien, Olivier de Saint-Amand : "The information you published on your site in the article entitled "A Masterpiece May Be Sold off, at Enghien (Wallonia)" is totally untrue. The agenda for the municipal council meeting of the city for which I am the Bourgmestre does not include a discussion on the subject. The Collège issued a negative opinion on the project as did the local archeological circle, and consequently any discussion on the project by the Conseil d’action sociale was abandoned."

We are thus pleased to announce that the information was not correct and that any plans to sell the work have been abandoned. The author of this article - whom we know, but who wished to remain anonymous, which is why the article is not signed, however confirmed that the project was indeed very real. There is no doubt that the many reactions it provoked, and mentioned in the article, went a long way fortunately to seeing that the project was finally dropped.

Update of 23 May 2013 :we received another reaction from Olivier de Saint-Amand. As the sale is no longer planned, we do not wish to carry the polemics any further and will therefore not respond. However, we have eliminated what we consider to be excessive comments in Mr. de Saint-Amand’s message.

"I thank you for posting part of my reaction [to your article]. But the comments which follow remain nevertheless unacceptable.

Yes, the Board of the CPAS did pursue a study on the valuation of its heritage. Yes, in order to shed further light on this study, it requested the advice of the executive board of the city, the cultural center and the archeological circle... This is after all one of its prerogatives. In fact, it should be commended for including them in their consultations.

On the other hand, no, this point was never on the voting agenda of the CPAS Board. No, this point was never on the agenda of the municipal council.

The work of city officials is a complex task in a particularly difficult socioeconomic context. It deserves, assuredly, more respect and circumspection from persons who, like you, express an attachment to Art and History.".

Update of 31 May 2012 : We received an email from Mr. Michel Demoortel, President of the Cercle royal archéologique of Enghien, Mr. Paul Cognet, Vice-President and Mr. Alain Jacobs, Conservator of the collections :

"Dear Sir,

The reaction of the Bourgmestre of Enghien is understandable and well founded. Indeed, the Board of Directors of the Cercle royal archéologique in Enghien (CRAE) reacted to mistaken information, relayed by one of its members during its last meeting of 17 May, concerning the addition to the Municipal Council agenda on this 23 May 2013 of the sale of the "Lamentation of Christ" by the Master of the "Virgo inter virgines".

In fact, the Municipal Council of Enghien had already expressed a negative opinion earlier about this sale project through the CPAS. It thus reflected our own viewpoint which we communicated to the aforementioned CPAS on 4 May (following the request for advice we received on 11 April 2013).

The Municipal Council of this Thursday 23 May did not therefore deal with the question of selling the painting mentioned above. However, the situation of the ASBL "Memorial Charles d’Arenberg" was briefly discussed, in relation to the deterioration of the art works at the Capucins convent, a recent episode which alone is enough to demonstrate how the heritage of a city such as Enghien is fragile.

The Cercle royal archéologique of Enghien, one of whose statutory missions consists precisely in ensuring the safeguard of the heritage in Enghien, will therefore remain vigilant in the future, determined to avoid - notably - that the work mentioned above by the Master of the "Virgo inter virgines", intimately tied to the history of our city, not be deaccessioned.

We thank you for informing of this matter while at the same time regretting the misunderstanding which led to the reaction of the Bourgmestre of Enghien. Sincerely yours."


[1] On this painting, see the article published on the website of the Cercle Archéologique d’Enghien.

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