A Painting in the Tours Cathedral Claimed by the Sacristan

Flanders, Begining of the XVIIth Century (?)
The Conversion of Saint Paul
Oil on Canvas - 190 x 400 cm (about)
Tours, cathédrale
Photo : Didier Rykner

27/4/12 - Heritage - Tours, Cathédrale Saint-Martin - The story we are about to tell is hard to believe [1] : in 2006, the sacristan of the Tours cathedral, following a request made by the chief architect for historical monuments, was cleaning up a room on the upper floor of the south tower, to help prepare for the restoration work on the façade, including notably the stained-glass windows.
This space, used mainly for storage, contained several pieces of furniture. While tyding up, he came upon a canvas about 4 meters wide which was practically illegible given the layer of mould covering it.

The heritage curator in charge of the building had tests carried out on the canvas but did not attempt a full restoration. However, just recently, a complete operation was carried out about two years ago which turned out to be rather expensive given the poor condition of the work. The results brought up a very fine quality painting, representing The Conversion of Saint Paul, probably an early 17th century Flemish school. There is no doubt that a name will be found for this beautiful composition [2].
A frame was made and the painting now hangs in the left aisle, over the door leading to the Psallette cloister (see video below).

La Conversion de Saint Paul de la cathédrale de... par latribunedelart

At this point, the sacristan, with the help of a lawyer from Tours, claimed that he was the "inventor" of the painting and as such, owned half of it. He asserted that the state (we should remember that it owns the cathedrals in France) could not prove its ownership of the work, as it did not appear in the 1906 inventory established at the time of the official separation between Church and State [3] !

Quite obviously, and correctly so, the French Ministry of Culture contests this version of the facts [4]. A look at article 716 of the code civil quoted by the sacristan’s lawyer in his claim, states : "The property of a treasure belongs to the person who finds it in his own estate ; if the treasure is found in someone else’s estate, half of it belongs to the person who discovered it, and the other half to the estate owner. A treasure is anything which is hidden or buried away for which no one can prove ownership, and which is discovered by pure accident." However, in the words of the lawyer himself as retranscribed in La Nouvelle République : "My client was asked to clean up a room located in the south tower of the cathedral. After moving an armoire, he found this canvas which was totally dirty". This means clearly then that the work was not "hidden or buried away" but that it was put away in a room filled with furniture. It is also obvious that the sacristan was merely working in the context of his employment when cleaning this room. Finally, saying that no one can prove the property of a painting found in a building is misleading since (article 2276 of the code civil) : "As concerns moveable goods, possession equals title".

The Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles has acted in an exemplary manner throughout this affair by restoring and displaying the work. The law will most probably judge the case too inane to consider and dismiss the sacristan’s claim. We can easily imagine the drastic consequences of a legal precedent if the contrary were ever to happen.

Version française

Didier Rykner, mercredi 2 mai 2012


[1] We were preparing an article on this very curious affair when it was published in La Nouvelle République of 27 April. We had not been able to reach the French Ministry of Culture before (which, since then has returned our call) and were planning to post it next week. Knowing that one of the DRAC officials, the heritage curator Gilles Blieck, states his department’s position, which we totally share, in the above newspaper, we will quote him here by referring our readers to the article in La Nouvelle République.

[2] In fact, we invite The Art Tribune readers to send us their ideas, despite the poor quality of the images.

[3] We all remember that the same argument was put forth in the - very different - case of the Malouel painting acquired by the Louvre. We must point out once more that these inventories were not always written up in an exhaustive maner and that the absence of a work from a list does not necessarily mean that it was not present in the building in question.

[4] According to Gilles Blieck, quoted in La Nouvelle République : "This painting was not hidden or buried away. It was simply set aside in a room used for storing furniture. It is undeniably a part of the cathedral heritage."

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