An Interview with Bertrand Talabardon and Bertrand Gautier about Friedrich’s Owl

The painting by Caspar David Friedrich, discovered by the Talabardon & Gautier Gallery which we had announced here (see the article), was finally sold to a French collector.
Although the work is temporarily banned for export, it seems unlikely at this point that the Louvre, even if it accepted the initial asking price, might acquire it (see our editorial).
We asked Bertrand Talabardon and Bertrand Gautier to give us their impressions of this much talked about affair now that it has ended.

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)
An Owl on a Bare Tree
Oil on Canvas - 25.5 x 31.5 cm
France, Private Collection
Photo : D. R.

Less than two years have passed between the time you bought Friedrich’s painting at auction, and its sale to a French collector which has concluded finally in a happy and quick ending although it was, at first, claimed by the seller.

Historically, and this has nothing to do with the painting itself, it’s important to realize that this is the first time this happens. French law, which presents a legal particularity called "vice du consentement", that is an error concerning the essence of the object in question, allows the seller to cancel a sale when an error has been made concerning the object’s substance, at the risk of depriving the person who made the discovery from benefitting from his work and expertise. This was the case in the Poussin Saint-Arromand affair, where a curator had done his work "too well", or also that of Poussin Pardo where, instead, two dealers had taken all the risks.
However, thanks to the help of our lawyer, Maître Corinne Hershkovitch, who defended our interests in the matter, we came to a fair agreement with the seller who, on the one hand cancelled the first auction, and then placed the painting in legal joint possession. The seller, whom we would like to acknowledge for her fairness in the matter, in fact [1] "admitted the dealers’ credit for having discovered the work without having seen it and placing a value on it", thus recognizing their "quality as inventors" and granting them "50% possession of the painting".
We should perhaps recall certain elements of this affair, particularly the fact that the Talabardon and Gautier Gallery discovered this work, took all the risks by buying it because we had not seen it physically and that it was only through simple deduction, from a very small picture where we recognized the original French frame, that we identified it as the painting which David d’Angers had bought or received as a gift from Caspar David Friedrich in 1834 and for which we pursued the bidding until the final sale at 420,000 €, including charges.

We must say that this is not just an ordinary work. Can you tell us more about the painting ?

In fact, besides the purely financial aspect, we should remember certain essential elements. We are looking at a work of exceptional character. We are not the ones saying this, but Mr. Supan, Friedrich’s specialist, who wrote ten pages on just this one painting for the entry we had requested and which made it possible to authenticate the canvas. This is also the opinion of Mr. Grave, the author of an upcoming work on the artist which will be published next year. These two historians believe that the painting is not a simple addition to the artist’s oeuvre, but that this is indeed a unique work in its own right : in the way it is centered, this is the only painting by Friedrich where the ground does not appear ; by the circumstances in which it was bought, David d’Angers’ text is amply explicit ; and finally, simply due to the rarity of works by Friedrich on the market. Even further, the foreigners who bought works by the artist, during his lifetime, can be counted on less than one hand : a Danish prince, the future Tsar of Russia... David d’Angers, owner of the work, is the only Frenchman. Thus, we were standing before an icon which can be summarized in four elements : an owl (in fact an eagle owl), a bare-leafed tree, a cloudy sky and a moon, everything corresponding to German Romanticism. Seen in this light, it is the perfect pair to the very famous Tree with Crows purchased fifteen years ago by the Louvre.

But, in fact, the painting will not be joining the Louvre after all, at least not in the near future...

A dealer’s mission is to discover works, he is also supposed to sell them. You will then understand that, given these conditions, it was important for us to follow the affair through to the end. And contrary to the seller’s "advisor" in this case, we realized immediately that this painting was meant to be in a museum.
This is why we insisted in offering the painting to the Louvre first, which asked us to apply for a passport, a preliminary step before it is considered by the Commission des Trésors Nationaux.
A price had to be established then, all the more difficult since the two parties were not pursuing the same goal. In the case of an auction, the choice expressed by the seller’s advisor, the range in the price estimate should be as attractive as possible. Once a dealer has fixed a price, he cannot increase it during a negotiation, at best he can only lower it. In this particular case, it was necessary to find a fair balance. We did so by settling on 6.5 million euros although, in our opinion, the painting was probably worth more on the international market.
We were aware that the Louvre, given the current economic context, would find it difficult to raise the funds needed to purchase it. This is why, after allowing this institution over a year to at least make us an offer, we were determined to find a French buyer willing to acquire the painting at the price we were asking, while remaining open to other museums. During the negotiating, we kept the Louvre informed of what was happening. As soon as we reached a settlement, we personally met with Henri Loyrette, the director of the Louvre and put him in touch with the seller.
We feel that we acted responsibly throughout and helped to bring this affair to a fair conclusion. This adventure which is, we feel, a very extraordinary story, has shown that the professional conditions of art dealers have changed radically since the advent of internet. Today, when information is readily and totally available, it is absolutely essential to be selective. This means taking risks, reacting quickly and disposing of financial resources which are out of the question for an administrative body which cannot make fast decisions. Because a dealer reports to no one other than himself and that he is free to choose whether to compromise his own name, he can take these risks and see a case like this one to a fair and final conclusion. This is what makes our profession so honorable. The work discovered and acquired by the Talabardon and Gautier Gallery was therefore sold by the Talabardon and Gautier Gallery.

Interviewed by Didier Rykner

Version française

La Tribune de l’Art, mardi 13 décembre 2011


[1] According to the words of her lawyer, in an article published in Artclair on 9 December 2011.

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