Disappeared in 1763, now claimed by the Ministry of Culture !

1. France, c. 1230-1240
Fragment of the Rood Screen from the
Chartres Cathedral.
Upper Part from the Central Rose
Limestone - 163 x 62 x 7 cm
Paris, Galerie Brimo de Laroussilhe
Photo : Galerie Brimo de Laroussilhe

Among the more delicate cases awaiting the attention of the new Minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterand, one has not yet been talked about but should soon make the headlines in the world of French cultural heritage. It concerns the claim by the ministry of an element of a rood screen from the Chartres cathedral belonging to an art dealer.

In 2002, the Parisian gallery Brimo de Laroussilhe, specialized in Medieval art, acquired a fragment of sculpted stone on the French market which was presented as being Italian Renaissance. After examining the object, Philippe Carlier, the gallery owner, discovered that it was in fact an element from the first rood screen on the Chartres cathedral, built between 1230-1240 and removed in 1763 (ill. 1), with one part buried in the ground under the structure as filling or paving material and rediscovered in the 19th century.

The gallery then requested an export certificate clearly stating on the application form that this was a “Fragment of the rood screen from Chartres. Fragment from the central rose [window] featuring the holy lamb and the symbols of the Evangelists. Chartres, circa 1230-1240”. Quite logically, the export certificate from France was rejected by the Commission consultative des trésors nationaux. The commission said that the fragment had been “separated no doubt around 1763, when the rood screen was dismounted and buried”. It also pointed out that the fragment was “almost certainly” an upper portion of another fragment held in the stone deposit of the cathedral.

On 19 July 2004, that is about one year after the work was listed as a national treasure, the Directeur du patrimoine, Michel Clément, wrote a letter to the gallery asking the sale price. Philippe Carlier answered by return mail, on 22 July 2004, that he wished to obtain 2.3 million euros, declaring that in his view, the work would be worth at least 5 million dollars on the international market.

For a year and a half, there was no reaction from the Ministry of Culture. On 23 December 2005, the Directrice des musées de France at the time, Francine Mariani-Ducray, made an offer of one million euros to the Galerie Brimo de Laroussilhe “in [its] position as owner”. The gallery turned down the offer judging that the price was too low given the importance of the piece. Let us remember that the export ban in no way forces an owner to accept the government’s offer.In case of a disagreement, the latter can request an outside evaluation. This was the choice made by the director of the Musées de France and she informed the gallery of this on 3 March 2006, that is the day before the thirty-month deadline on the export ban expired.

Two experts were appointed, one requested by the gallery, the other by the Ministry of Culture. At first they agreed, on 25 May 2006, that “the sum of €2,300,000 […] quoted by the Galerie Brimo de Laroussilhe is a fair one, and indeed that it could be considerably exceeded in international auction” but without settling on an estimate. One (representing the Ministry of Culture) suggested a value of €3million, the other (representing the gallery) that of €4.7 million. In any case, they had proven that the gallery’s original asking price had been reasonable (below the lower estimate), and that the offer of one million put forth by the Ministry of Culture was three times lower than the high estimate.

In the case of a divergency of opinion between the experts, the law provides for another specialist, either after agreement by the two parties, or by the President of the magistrate’s court. A new expert was thus selected, by mutual accord. On 17 December 2006, he in turn fixed the value of the work on the international market. The price had reached €7million ! That is, almost three times higher than the price asked by the Galerie Brimo de Laroussilhe and seven times the one offered by the management of the French museums.

Given the obvious error they had committed, the management of the Musées de France, that of architecture and heritage should have kept a low profile. That is not Michel Clément’s habit. He decided, on 12 February 2007, to ask the Galerie Brimo de Laroussilhe to restitute the fragment of the rood screen from the Chartres cathedral to the Ministry of Culture, claiming that this was public property, based on a decree of 2 November 1789 by the Assemblée Constituante which stipulated that church property should be placed at the disposal of the state [1].

Obviously, the gallery refused to comply and requested that the certificate be issued, something the government could not refuse as it would not accept to pay the €7million established by the expert. The Directeur du Patrimoine answered that the certificate could not be issued as this was “property belonging to the government.”

Such proceedings leave us speechless : after four years during which ownership of the work had not been contested [2], seeing that it was impossible to acquire the piece at the price it offered and after the gallery owner had from the very beginning shown signs of good faith and his willingness to see the piece enter the national collections, the Ministry of Culture suddenly decided that the work belonged to the government. We will not linger on the court proceedings in progress. However, we would point out that on 14 March 2009, four months ago, the government by means of the Direction Nationale d’Intervention Domaniale filed a claim for the rood screen with the court in question.

Any independent observer with knowledge of museum and art market procedures would be shocked by the affair. If the Galerie Brimo de Laroussilhe had accepted the price, obviously quite under-estimated, of one million euros offered by the Ministry of Culture, it is clear that the latter would never have filed the restitution claim. Most of all, the fact that a rood screen destroyed in 1763 might be considered part of the public domain leaves one dumfounded. The Ministry of Culture’s whole argument lies in an attempt to prove that this fragment of the root screen had been buried under the ground of the cathedral in 1788 and brought up in 1791, when paving work was carried out. We will let the court rule on this point. Let us for our part simply use our common sense : how can the government claim today, in 2009, ownership of a work which disappeared in 1763 by saying that it might have lain in the ground of the cathedral in 1789 ?

2. France, c. 1230-1240
Head of Joseph, Fragment of the Rood Screen
from the Chartres Cathedral
Limestone with traces
of polychromy -
17.1 x 13.5 x 10.3 cm
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo : The Metropolitan Museum of Art

We would appreciate if the Ministry of Culture were always so interested in national heritage. This relentless obstinacy in its dealings with an art dealer is unheard of, especially since he is only doing his work and offered the object to the museums at a reasonable price (which could have been funded through patronage) while, at the same time, to take only one recent example, Henri Martin’s works are scattered at auction when they in fact, with all certainty, are public property (see our article of 9/6/08). Will the French government now ask the Metropolitan Museum in New York to return the Head of Joseph which is also from the rood screen at Chartres and was acquired by the American museum in 2007 (. 2) ? Will it claim the Head of a King which has been part of the collections of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine since the early 20th century ? There is no doubt that these museums will think twice before lending us works in the future for exhibitions in France.

Let us suggest that the Direction du Patrimoine should instead concern itself with a more legitimate, and real, claim which we had asked about a few years ago without ever receiving an answer : a painting by Jean Restout representing the Last Supper (ill. 3) entered the Snite Museum of Art of Notre Dame, Indiana in 2000. This work was from Versailles where it was held in 1811 before being placed on deposit at the Louvre in 1818 then at the church in Cancale in 1839, where it disappeared around 1960 [3]. Here we have an example of an object that is outright property of the French government, an inalienable work which should be legitimately claimed for by France. However, a French art dealer is an easier target to tackle than an American museum.

3. Jean Restout (1692-1768)
The Last Supper, 1744
Oil on canvas - 244 x 149 cm
Cancale, Church
Today in Notre Dame,
The Snite Museum of Art
Photo : All rights reserved

4. Ascribed to Jean de Lièges or his
workshop, c. 1376
Fragment of Charles V and Jeanne de Bourbon’s Tomb
Marble - 63.5 x 20 x 5.5 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : SVV Prunier

If the government were to win this case, one can only imagine the disastrous consequences at two levels : for the art market and for French museums. As they would no longer be able to sell objects for which it is impossible to have proof of provenance before the Revolution, nor trace them during this period, nor even during the 19th century, French art dealers would have their hands tied. In this light, why didn’t the Musée du Louvre simply claim the fragment of Charles V’s tomb as its property (ill. 4 ; see news item of 15/6/09) since it was without the shadow of a doubt in the basilica of Saint Denis in 1793 ? The inevitable climate of mistrust if such were the case would be disastrous. It is obvious that a strong art market is an important source of revenue for a country as well as a solid guarantee for enriching its heritage. The Syndicat National des Antiquaires (SNA) understands the potential danger of such government action and has provided its support to the Galerie Brimo de Laroussilhe, notably by commissioning a report from Professor Yves Gaudemet, a law professor at Paris II Sorbonne, on the application of public domain laws to property removed from places of worship particularly during Revolutionary times [4].

But there is an even more serious issue at stake and the director of patrimony would bear a significant responsibility. A decision to restitute this fragment of the rood screen would in the short term certainly enrich French heritage at little cost. However, it would open the way for a considerable number of restitution claims. Why not reconsider all of the confiscation cases during the Revolution ? If the government deems that the works which disappeared during this period belong to the public domain, why did it in turn have the right to confiscate entire collections belonging to private individuals ? Most of all, foreign countries with objects which entered our collections in the 19th century and are now held in our museums would find it legitimate to launch a great number of suits claiming restitution since the French government would itself be setting the example. By attempting to recover, without payment, this piece of the rood screen from the cathedral in Chartres, France runs the risk of opening the floodgates for other restitution claims.

5. France, c. 1230-1240
Fragment of the Rood Screen from the
Chartres Cathedral
Limestone with traces of polychromy
Chartres, Cathedral
Photo : Didier Rykner

6. France, c. 1230-1240
The Nativity
Fragment of the Rood Screen from
the Chartres Cathedral
Limestone with traces of polychromy
Chartres, Cathedral
Photo : Didier Rykner

The Direction du Patrimoine did not wish to answer our questions on this subject. It did, however, allow us to see the other elements of the rood screen which are part of the Cathedral Treasure in Chartres. Although there has been a noticeable effort to safeguard and make an inventory of the stone elements of the cathedral by setting up a storehouse on the upper level of the building’s south side (ill. 5), these fragments (ill. 6), including the lower part of the central rose which complete the puzzle-like whole of the element belonging to the Galerie Brimo de Laroussilhe (ill. 7 and 9), have not been open to the public since about 2000 and will remain so for the moment. A refurbishment of the Saint Pia chapel (ill. 8) where they were exhibited should allow for their presentation one day along with the Cathedral Treasure, but funding has not yet been found.

7. France, c. 1230-1240
Fragment of the Rood Screen from the
Chartres Cathedral.
Lower Part from the Central Rose
Limestone - 163 x 62 x 7 cm (approximately)
Chartres, Cathedral
Photo : Didier Rykner

8. Saint-Pia Chapel, Chartres Cathedral
Future place of
the Cathedral Tresor
Photo : Didier Rykner

For once that Michel Clément, in this case poorly advised by his department, thought he was defending national heritage, it turns out he has once again chosen his side poorly. We have seen how a victory for him would be a defeat for French museums. His failure, which we should nevertheless wish for, will also mean that this major work, which would have enabled the reconstitution of the central rose of the rood screen at Chartres, almost surely will leave the country. The new Minister is in no way responsible for this situation. It would be in his honor if he were to acknowledge that his department made an error here and withdrew this absurd claim. There is no disgrace in admitting one’s mistakes, especially when made by a predecessor.

9. France, c. 1230-1240
The Divine Lamb with the Symbols
the Evangelists

Photo-montage of the Rose of the Rood
Screen from the Chartres Cathedral
Upper part : Galerie Brimo de Laroussilhe
Lower part : Chartres Cathedral
Limestone - 123 x 64 x 7 cm (approximately)
Chartres, Cathedral
Photo : Galerie Brimo
de Laroussilhe and
Didier Rykner

Read the article in Libération

Version française

Didier Rykner, dimanche 12 juillet 2009


[1] The possibility of a claim had been brought up during a meeting at the Ministry on 23 October 2006.

[2] When the object was presented to the Commission des trésors nationaux, the chairperson, Colette di Matteo, had indeed wondered about the possibility that the object might be public property. She had then concluded that it was not : “given the doubts remaining concerning the date the fragment entered the private domain, it is impossible to claim it. Because there is nothing indicating at which period it was removed, it is very likely that it was stolen in 1763.”

[3] 3. Cf. Christie Gouzi, Jean Restout 1692-1768. Peintre d’histoire à Paris, Arthena, Paris, 2000, cat. P118, pp. 271-272.

[4] This report, dated 19 May 2009, concludes notably that the public domain does not apply to cathedrals until 1805, not 1789. It also points out that a “fragment taken from a place of worship not appropriated by a public figure […] obviously does not fall under the public domain, due to the simple fact it was removed, which is separate from the building of worship it comes from and to which it was not bound before it was removed”. It also states that “fragments removed from a building of worship do not belong to the public domain unless they contribute to its purpose of worship by their arrangement or interest”.

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