France’s hidden museum

« Museum works should be deposited in museums » Christine Albanel, Minister of Culture

The opening quote to our investigation was pronounced by the former Minister of Culture in response to a question we asked during the press conference on Thursday, 29 January 2009 concerning inventory checks for art works. Yet, what follows shows clearly this is only wishful thinking. It would be impossible to count the works from national museums found on deposit, in total disregard of policy and sometimes quite recently (Elysée, Sénat, Assemblée Nationale, ministries, embassies, prefectures, city halls, etc.) where they have no right to be. Despite open access to information, no one has ever carried out a study on this practice… The facts we publish here are indeed, for the most part, easy to find and the location of these deposits readily accessible. The establishments involved are the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and Versailles but we could probably pursue our investigation further in other national museums. First off, we started by drawing up a list based on the collection catalogues where deposits are generally pointed out using internet databases (the one for Orsay is very thorough on this point), on files open to the public and by verifying certain information on a regular basis directly with the museums. We then, as much as possible, contacted the deposit holders to make sure that some works were still there, to know specifically where the items were and to ask about the reasons for these deposits. One or two of the objects listed here may have been returned recently without having been pointed out or with a mistaken location ; that still does not change our final conclusions.

A reminder of the laws and regulations

Decree n°81-240 of 3 March 1981 concerning loans and deposits of works from French national museums specified, already almost thirty years ago, that works from national museums could only be deposited in museums, historical monuments open to the public and parks or gardens of national domains [1]. It was even clearly stated that these deposits could only be made if the location was placed under frequent supervision by scientifically trained conservation personnel and guaranteed safety conditions required for said works.

Knowing that some deposits might date far back historically, the lawmakers provided for a five year transition period at most (after which a deposit must be officially authorized again). So then in 1986, all of the deposits should have corresponded to the demands listed above.
However, two exceptions were allowed. The first : objects deposited before 1981 in buildings belonging to the government, a department or a municipality could remain there, on condition that these works be exhibited to the public [2].
The second is outlined in article 11 : “works from national museums which the consulting committee for national museums considers are not necessary for the presentation of national collections may be deposited at the ‘mobilier national’ [3] which will dispose of them according to the conditions established by the regulations in effect.” Besides the fact that the regulations in effect prohibit the Mobilier National from depositing any work produced before 1800, the spirit of article 11 is clear : a work which is not necessary for the presentation of national collections is obviously considered to be minor. Nonetheless, this article can be interpreted as an excuse to justify all kinds of misuse, since all that is needed is a ruling from the consulting committee for national museums to approve the deposit of a 19th or 20th century masterpiece.

In 1996, a letter from the Prime Minister instructed moreover that : “Deposits of works from national museums outside of museums are no longer possible today. No such requests should be made from now on.”

Therefore, regulatory and legislative provisions can be summed up as follows :

- since 1996 no work can be deposited other than in a museum or park or garden of a national domain,

- no work produced before 1800 may remain on deposit other than in a museum or park or garden of a national domain, unless the deposit was made before 1981 and the object was placed in a building owned by the government, a department or a municipality and is exhibited to the public [4].

Since laws and regulations are never simple,

- no work produced after 1800 may remain on deposit other than in a museum or park or garden of a national domain unless the deposit was made before 1981 and the object was placed in a building owned by the government, a department or a municipality and is exhibited to the public, or if it was deposited before 1996 at the Mobilier National after a renewed authorization.

As these provisions were confirmed by the museum law of 2002, it turns out, in an attempt to summarize and simplify the terms, that the deposit of works belonging to French museums outside of a museum or park or garden of a national domain, is forbidden, unless said deposit was made before 1981, and if the object was placed in a building owned by the government, a department or a municipality and is exhibited to the public [5].

Although fastidious, it was indispensable to recall the French law here. The former Minister of Culture, Christine Albanel had as a matter of fact summarized it in the statement we gladly adopt as our own and which we quoted at the beginning of this article. As we will see, a reality check shows that this is not at all the case and that thousands of works, including at least several hundred of major importance, are currently on deposit in total disregard of regulations in effect in public buildings, even in some cases in apartments provided to public officials by the government.
The situation is serious and unjustified, particularly since the public is deprived of major art works, which moreover are often endangered by problematic conservation conditions and a lack of safety measures.
There are two establishments in charge of supplying furniture for important government institutions : the Mobilier National and the Fonds National d’Art Contemporain. The purpose of museums is not supposed to replace or complement the mission of these two establishments. It is time that these practices stop and the objects return to the museums.

1. Fernand Cormon (1845-1924)
Portrait of the Painter Lehoux, 1894
Oil on canvas - 80 x 65 cm
Oppède, City hall (deposit of the
Musée d’Orsay)
Photo : Musée d’Orsay

Last but not least : the issue here is not to point an accusing finger at museums or their directors. Most curators discover the situation on arriving and are powerless to change it. To recover works belonging to them, on deposit in places where they have no business being, museum officials have to negotiate patiently for long periods of time with the departments holding the deposits which often refuse or accept only in exchange for another deposit, just as unjustified.
Also, it would not be fair to systematically condemn political officials or those holding deposits. Although everyone should be familiar with the law, many are often unaware of these provisions and sincerely think it is their legitimate right, especially given the fact that these works have always been there. Some of these persons are even amazed to find out, during an inventory check, that the painting in their office is on deposit from a national museum. Thus, the mayor of Oppède in a letter mailed on 27 January 2004 to the Musée d’Orsay in answer to a request asking if the Portrait of the Painter Lehoux by Fernand Cormon (ill. 1) was indeed held in his city hall, confirmed the information and wondered “at the fact that a canvas belonging to the government was in Oppède”. He asked for the historical background concerning the deposit.
Some mayors, however, some prefects, some project managers in certain ministries or even some Assembly presidents are objectionably insincere. The list of works is so long that it is impossible to enumerate all of them. We will therefore point out only the most shocking cases.

Christian Poncelet’s Albani

2. Francesco Albani, called
L’Albane (1578-1660)
Allegory of Fertility
Oil on canvas
Paris, Private apartments of the Senate
(deposit of the
Musée du Louvre)
Phot : RMN

The Assemblée Nationale and the Sénat deserve an article all to themselves given the number of works deposited there. The fact that these institutions write our laws makes their flaunting them all the more intolerable.
The examples at times come from very high up. Since 1853, the Senate has held a painting by Albani owned by the Louvre (ill. 2). There is no comparable work to this Allegory of Fertility today in the museum. As it hangs in the private apartments of the Senate president (the corner room on the first floor to be precise), obviously it is not accessible to the public. This did not prevent Christian Poncelet, who at the time held this prestigious position, from acting as if it were his due.
In December 2000, the Département des peintures at the Louvre offered to keep the painting by Albani which had returned to the Louvre for an exhibition in exchange for the deposit of either a work painted after Marcantonio Franceschini, or another Albani, Venus and Adonis. Indeed, the Louvre was extremely diplomatic in not pointing out that none of these deposits were allowed anymore and that it could have simply retained the Senate Albani without requesting anyone’s permission. But one dare not upset the Senate president. Although the offer was already a very generous one, Poncelet took offense. In a highly indignant letter, the head of the Questure (administrative and fiscal offices in the senate) complained to the then Minister of Culture, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, of the Louvre’s lack of politeness. After explaining that it took good care of its deposits (the least it could do !) and that it “loaned” them generously (how magnanimous can one be !), he put forward a veritable untruth daring to say that the Senate “took care that they might be admired extensively by the many visitors to the Palais du Luxembourg (300,000 a year).” Most of these works, held in the Questure offices or in the president’s apartments are not accessible to the public. To show how mad they were, the Questure officials then unanimously decided “to no longer respond favorably for the moment to requests for outside loans addressed to them.” As we said earlier, one dare not upset the Senate president. The minister thus satisfied his demands and promised this would not happen again in the future, going so far as to apologize for all the bother.
The Albani painting still hangs in the apartments of the Senate president, who today is Gérard Larcher, although the canvas returned temporarily to the Louvre for a loan to the Prado until 31 January 2010. The Senate told us that, this time, no other work had been requested to replace it.

3. Giovanni Paolo
Pannini (1691-1765)
A Preacher Amid Ruins in

Oil on canvas
Paris, Senate
president’s office
(deposit of the Musée
du Louvre)
Photo : RMN

4. Giuseppe Cesari,
called the Cavaliere d’Arpino
The Presentation
of the Virgin to the Temple

Oil on canvas
Paris, Senate
(deposit of the
Photo : RMN

As in the saying, one cannot see the forest for the trees, the Albani should not let us forget the overall situation. The presidential rooms in the Senate constitute a museum all to itself, for the almost exclusive enjoyment of the occupant. There are indeed several major works there, all deposited in places which are not open to the public except in exceptional circumstances. In the dining room, there are two very beautiful paintings by Charles Natoire, The Three Graces and Air or Juno, deposited in 1920 with one of the elements of this same series held at the museum in Autun. A superb Pannini, A Preacher Amid Ruins in Rome (ill. 3) hangs in the president’s office, a place we find hard to believe is ever open to the public… A large altarpiece by Cavaliere d’Arpino, The Presentation of the Virgin to the Temple (ill. 4), with no equivalent at the Louvre, was in the president’s private apartments. This canvas obviously does not correspond to Gérard Larcher’s taste, because since October 2008 it has been put on deposit, while awaiting a “new location, in another part of the Senate”.

5. Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg
Fording the River
Oil on canvas
Paris, Apartment of
an administrator of Senate
(deposite of the
Photo : RMN

6. Joseph Vernet (1714-1789)
Morning, Fishing
Oil on canvas - 98 x 162 cm
Paris, Senate
Secretary-general’s office
(deposite of the Louvre)
Photo : RMN

The Questure readily defends the perks related to the presidential position. This is understandable given the numerous works deposited there such, as two landscapes by Etienne Allegrain in one of the offices. Let us point out that a painting by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, Fording the River (ill. 5) can be found in the government provided apartment of an administrator, no doubt an art lover, at 64, boulevard Saint-Michel. The secretary-general of the Senate is also fortunate as he enjoys in his office a painting by Joseph Vernet, Seascape, Returning from Fishing (ill. 6), a beautiful canvas from a series of four…with the three others at the Elysée, as well as two paintings by Auguste Couder (The Capture of Philipsbourg by Marshalls d’Asfeld and de Noailles and Maurice de Sax Handing the Keys to the City of Prague to the Elector of Bavaria). The exact locations for these works are not given in the very useful publication devoted to “Patrimoine du Sénat” at editions Flohic. The same applies to the works published in “Patrimoine de l’Assemblée Nationale”.

In answer to our questions concerning these deposits, the Senate responded with carefully prepared arguments. We will overlook the lengthy age of the deposits which was put forward and which we do not contest… except for the painting by Auguste Roux,Louis-Philippe Visiting the Musée du Luxembourg deposited in 2008 in exchange for Portrait of Murat by Charles Lefebvre after François Gérard. And yet, the second had barely returned to Versailles before being shipped off to the Elysée ! Not only was an illegitimate deposit replaced by another, but it now finds itself, as wrongfully as ever, moved elsewhere.
Indeed, “the Senate is not against […] requests by museums for the definitive return in order to exhibit a work in a permanent manner in their collections, on condition that an equivalent deposit be made.” This is not true (as illustrated above by the case of the Albani which the Senate formally refused to return, even in exchange for the deposit of an “equivalent work”). This procedure of exchanging works is moreover totally abnormal. The rules are very clear : the works on deposit are supposed to be returned, and another deposit is not allowed. These requests for an exchange are not acceptable in any way.
The Senate also states that several of the deposits it holds are “exhibited in ‘open’ [sic] places, that is spots which welcome visitors on a regular basis. This is obviously not enough : anyone trying to enter the Senate and asking to see the paintings in the presidential offices or those of the administrators, or even at the parliamentary bar (where there is a large painting by Edouard Detaille, The Garnison at Huningue Coming Out, 20 August 1815ill. 7, an Orsay deposit) will be politely turned away. Let us recall that the law of 1981 states clearly that, even in those historical monuments open to the public (which, we repeat, is not the case for the Senate), objects cannot be put on deposit “unless [6] exhibited to the public”. The condition is clearly set forth. There is no way that a painting hanging in an office in the Senate was put there to be presented to the public.

7. Edouard Detaille (1848-1912)
The Garnison
at Huningue Coming
Out, 20 August 1815

Oil on canvas
Paris, Parliamentary bar of the Senate (deposit
of the Musée d’Orsay)
Photo : RMN

The Senate also justifies itself by pointing out that : “when the Museums which make the deposits request the loans of works [deposited there] for temporary exhibitions, [the senate] almost always answers favorably.” Lending works which do not belong to you upon request from the owner seems the least one could do (although we have seen that at times the senate threatens not do it anymore). It also states that “these works placed on deposit at the Senate are restored regularly in the workshops of the museums making the deposits or by restorers designated by them at the expense of the Senate which thus contributes to the restoration and protection of national heritage.” Here again, this is the least they could do but does not constitute a good reason, insofar as the institutions receiving the deposits are responsible for ensuring the conservation of the works.

The last justification also deserves to be quoted : “On the other hand, we should remember that several works belonging to the historical patrimony of the Palais du Luxembourg are today in permanent collections in museums.” This sign of reciprocating does not qualify as a justification : there is no law forbidding the Senate from depositing works in museums. It does itself an honor in fact and it is totally normal that certain museum works be exhibited in public museums. Thus, the Salon of the King of Rome, made up of 21 painted velvet seats and 8 painted hangings was placed on deposit in 1984 in Fontainebleau (it had been at the château de Malmaison since 1933) and a painting by Emile Friant, Out in Nature, was deposited in March 2006 at the Musée départemental Georges de La Tour in Vic-sur-Seille for five years, to be renewed on request.
The third example put forth by the Senate concerning its “deposits” is foundless as it boasts of having deposited at the Louvre no less than the Life of Marie de Medicis by Rubens. These paintings, although they come from the Palais du Luxembourg, are obviously fully owned in all right by the museum. Under this interpretation, all of the paintings from the royal collection could be considered as being placed on deposit by Versailles at the Louvre.

The Assemblée Nationale

As in the case of the Senate, the premises of the Assemblée Nationale are filled with unauthorized deposits. Unlike the Senate however, the Assemblée did not confirm the exact location of these works to us.

In 2005, the Assemblée set its heart on two sculptures at the château in Versailles. These were full-length marble portraits, of Jean-Etienne-Marie, Count Portalis and François-Denis Tronchet respectively by Louis-Pierre Deseine and Philippe-Laurent Roland. They were supposed to, as the Assemblée’s communications office told us, “to be placed in the Salon Casimir Périer to fill two niches which had been empty for one hundred years.” This explains why they were removed from their original bases, still visible at Versailles [7]. In 1997, several busts of presidents of the French Republic, one (Gabriel Doumergue) sculpted by Denis Puech, met the same fate. These sculpturs left the château against official regulations.

8. François Boucher (1848-1912)
The Musette
Oil on canvas - 88 x 115 cm
Paris, Assemblée Nationale (deposit of
the Louvre)
Photo : RMN

We will only list here the most important works on deposit at the Palais-Bourbon. There are notably two very beautiful paintings by François Boucher, The Sleeping Shepherdess and The Musette (ill. 8) which in 2002 were in the government allotted apartment of the Secretary General and today are, according to the answer provided by the Assemblée Nationale, in the Hôtel de Lassay. We would like to point out here that we were told that there are no works in government allotted private apartments, but that some could be found in the official apartments of the president or the administrators. The difference there is the following : an official apartment is furnished by the government as it is to be used for organizing missions entrusted to its occupant, whether or not he lives there [8]. The person with whom we spoke admitted that “the degree to which these official apartments are open to the public is obviously very low, unless there is an invitation to do so.”

There are also two paintings by François Desportes at the Assemblée in the dining room of the Petit Hôtel ; a canvas by Jean-Baptiste Pater, The Swing in one of the Questure offices ; an important painting by Adrien Dauzats, The El Asar Mosque in Cairo, which is also in the Hôtel de la Questure and also a masterpiece by François-André Vincent, President Molé, Taken by Rebels during the Fronde Wars. The Louvre does not present any paintings by the Swiss Neo-classical artist Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours yet David Learning of Saul’s Death, Condemns the Amalekite Messenger to Death by this painter, belonging to Versailles, was listed during the last inventory check as being held in the Assamblée storage on rue Saint-Dominique !

We will set aside the particular case of two large paintings : The Death of Socrates by Pierre Peyron and Oedipus and Antigone by Charles Thévenin. These works were in fact deposited in 1799 at the Palais Bourbon and have remained there ever since. So, in this specific example we can legitimately say that the inscription in the Louvre inventories falls under the category of historical exception rather than actual reality.

It would only be fair to say, in concluding these two chapters concerning the French Parliament, that the Sénat and the Assemblée Nationale returned the works deposited on premises recently restituted by the Parliament to the château in Versailles.

The Elysée and Matignon

9 . Hubert Robert (1733-1808)
View of a
Park. The
Water Fountain

Oil on canvas - 168 x 59.5 cm
Paris, The Elysée
Photo : RMN

Let us continue at the highest government level, at the very top in fact as the Elysée, which is not often open to the public (passers-by cannot even use the same side of the sidewalk in front of the entrance), is just as remiss in this practice as the two parliamentary chambers. Although a Francesco Guardi was returned to the Louvre after the exhibition devoted to the Le Caze collection and is exhibited today in its galleries, many works, at times of major importance, are still held there. These are probably of no real interest to its occupant. When remembering the way in which Bernadette Chirac, wife of former President Jacques Chirac, constantly intervened in this respect, this is perhaps all for the better.
There are indeed not only a large Hubert Robert, View of a Park. The Water Fountain (ill. 9) sent in 1979, but also two other paintings by the artist one of which was deposited in 1993 and another in 1998, that is after the decree forbidding this practice (Interior of a Roman Park and Landscape. A Waterfall). The request was made directly by Jacques Chirac who wished to furnish the Salon Vert at the Elysée after its restoration. His wife personally welcomed the curator in charge of the operation and told him of her “interest in portraits”, resulting in an offer of a painting after Louis-Michel Van Loo. Madame Chirac expressed her satisfaction of this choice which was thus transformed into a deposit at the Mobilier National and then at the Elysée.

We saw at the beginning of this article that these deposits first go through the Mobilier National, especially for works dating before 1800. The legal maneuvers can be intricate indeed. Hence, the Ministry of Culture issues orders regularly to give a legitimate appearance to these deposits. Let us take the example of several sculptures from the Louvre covered by an order (n°200601572) dating from 26 December 2006 approving the renewal of a deposit authorized by an order on 1st January 1951 at Matignon (the Prime Minister’s residence). The introduction to this text justifies the order by listing four different decrees. Further down, we learn that the first authorization for the deposit had not been renewed since 1951. The strangest thing is perhaps the presence of two bronzes by Barye, Ocelot Snatching a Heron and Bull Standing which, however, have disappeared since at least 1996. There is no use in worrying about these lost bronzes as they have been requested for deposit again, a non-existent one, at Matignon. As a matter of fact, it seems that no complaint has been filed as to their disappearance.

Several paintings are on deposit at the Elysée. There are notably, from the Louvre, a François Desportes, Fruit and Game, a painting by Jacques Dumont le Romain, Abundance, three landscapes by Joseph Vernet, Noon, Evening and Night which we have already mentioned as the fourth element in the series is at the Senate (ill. 6).
However, it is obvious that the two paintings by Alexandre-Hyacinth Dunouy which had been placed in the Elysée by the Murat family (Trajan’s Colum in a Landscape and A View of the Berg Castle on the Banks of the Rhine) which are inlaid in the wood panelling should remain there. They are an integral part of the history and décor of this monument.
Finally, let us point out that Erminia and Valfrino Treating Tancred’s Wounds after the Battle of Argand by Pier-Francesco Mola, deposited at the Elysée in 1875 had disappeared in the 1950’s and was then found, after a donation in 1961 to the De Young Museum in San Francisco. This painting was finally returned to the Louvre in 1986.

The Pavillion de la Lanterne in Versailles, which the President of the French Republic recently took over, to the detriment of the Prime Minister, also has its share of works. There is still a Hubert Robert deposited in 1946, a Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer (Silver Vase with the French Coat of Arms Ornated with Flowers) and some minor paintings such as a landscape by Simon Lantara.

10. Giovanni Battista Busiri (1698-1757)
Sybille’s Temple and the Waterfalls
of Tivoli

Oil on canvas - 97 x 73 cm
Paris, Hôtel Matignon, officer’s office
(deposit of the
Photo : C2RMF

11. Pierre Gobert (1662-1744)
Portrait of a Woman at Fountain
Oil on canvas
Paris, Hôtel Matignon
(deposit of the
Photo : RMN

Although the Prime Minister was deprived of the Lanterne, he retains a rich art collection unfairly garnered from national museums. Not only for himself, as a matter of fact. His advisers also benefit from the nation’s generosity. Many of us remember the legendary episode of the Giovanni Battista Busiri (ill. 10) which almost didn’t make it to the exhibition Peintres de la Réalité because an adviser to Matignon refused to part with a painting in his office (see news item of 23/11/06 in French). Officials went so far as to offer him a Corot in exchange, turned down as not being good enough. This was a refusal by an adviser, not the Prime Minister at the time, and we received confirmation that today Matignon never denies a request for a loan. However, the incident illustrated the incredible arrogance of some of the “nation’s servants” who personally, and unduly, appropriate works which should hang in museums. The Busiri has since then returned to Matignon [9], to join its pair… Room 113 at 58, rue de Varenne reveals a Portrait of a Woman at Fountain by Pierre Gobert (ill. 11), perhaps the artist’s masterpiece ; on the first floor, in the smoking corridor, there is a Presumably Self-portrait by Alexis Grimou. Speaking of this artist, the painting of the month in November 2004 at the Louvre was a recent donation of a Grimou portrait which enabled the museum “to represent the painter in a convincing manner within the Louvre collections…”. Matignon also holds a Fantastic Landscape with Ruins by Jacques de Lajoüe.

12 . Nicolas de Largilliere (1656-1746)
Portrait of the Count
of La Châtre

Oil on canvas
Deposit of the Louvre
to the l’Hôtel Matignon,
Vanished during the fire of 2001
Photo : RMN

A superb Portrait of Pierre Bérulle by Hyacinthe Rigaud, deposited in 1993 along with the two Busiris (and several other paintings), had been restored in 2003. In 2004, during the inventory check, several scratches were seen ! At least it is still there and has not disappeared. This is, alas, no longer the case for two paintings by Nicolas de Largillière (ill. 12) which vanished in 2001 during a fire in one of the Matignon offices. How unlucky one might say ? Except that these paintings should never have been there in the first place if the law had been applied. Obviously, no one is to blame for the loss. The Prime Minister’s offices purchased two paintings to replace them [10].

Matignon also has in the garden since 1935 a statue by Pierre Lepautre representing Meleager, from Marly which was exhibited at the Tuileries for a while. Besides the fact that this deposit is not legitimate (Matignon is unfortunately not a public garden), the work is subjected to pollution. Most of the sculptures prior to the 19th century from the Tuileries have returned to the Louvre and have been replaced by copies. If the Prime Minister wishes to keep his Meleager, this would obviously be a much better solution.

The Ministries

13. Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743)
The Flute Lesson
Oil on canvas
Paris, Ministry of
Foreign Affairs
(deposit of the Louvre)
Photo : RMN

The first of these is not the only one to benefit from museum works. Many of the other ministries often present similar examples. Let us point out, however, that the Ministry of Culture, which might easily take advantage of the practice, is in this case, perfectly above reproach. We did not find any deposits there.
The same cannot be said of Foreign Affairs. One finds a canvas there by Nicolas Lancret, The Flute Lesson belonging to the Louvre (ill. 13). There are also a Jean-Baptiste Oudry (Dog Standing by a Pheasant) – which was just returned to the Louvre – and two landscapes by Jean-François de Troy, as well as the works held in the embassies (see below). Recently, in 2008, a painting by Edouard Dubufe, The Congress in Paris (ill. 14) was lent to Versailles [11].

14. Edouard Dubufe (1819-1883)
The Congress in Paris, 25 February
to 30 March 1856

Oil on canvas - 308 x 510 cm
Paris, Ministry of
Foreign Affairs (deposit of Versailles)
Photo : RMN

A very important Pierre Peyron from the Louvre, David’s unlucky rival, Time and Minerva who Bestow Immortality only on Those who Have Served their Country Well, can be found at the Ministry of Defense, Hôtel de Brienne ; a Pannini (yet another !) was at the Ministry of Labor, in the minister’s dining room in 2005. A marble bust by Augustin Dumont, Young Girl with a Crown of Primroses sits above the fireplace of one of the Education minister’s associates. In 1998, the Minister of Overseas Departments and Territories enjoyed lunch in his government allotted apartment while looking at a large Corot, Shepherds from Sorrento Dancing. This painting is still on deposit in this ministry even if, our questions having gone unanswered, we cannot confirm that it is still in this exact spot.
As for Rinaldo and Armida by François-André Vincent, exhibited at the Salon of 1787 and deposited at the Ministry of the Interior, it has today disappeared ! A complaint was filed in 2006.

Conseil d’Etat

15. César Van Loo (1743-1821)
A Moonlight
with Figures in a Group

Oil on canvas - 140 x 97 cm
Paris, Conseil d’Etat (deposit of the
Photo : RMN

Here is another government institution which should be setting the example : the Conseil d’Etat (or supreme court) is in fact supposed to advise the government on legal matters. How curious that it should thus ignore the law when it comes to paintings from the Louvre. In 2007, after being presented at the Grand Palais for the exhibition Mélancolie, Temple in Ruins with Peasants around a Kettle by Hubert Robert was considered to be too fragile to place on the premises of the Conseil d’Etat where it had been deposited in 1987 (thus six years after this practice had been outlawed !). And so of course, another canvas had to deposited in exchange for it, A Moonlight with Figures in a Group by César Van Loo (ill. 15). The business report for the Louvre in 2006, which can be consulted online here in no way dissembles what can only be termed as a real scandal (p. 234). One reads : “in exchange [for the Hubert Robert painting], the département des Peintures deposited in unsatisfactory conservation conditions (the painting hangs on a very sunlit wall) the Moonlight with Figures in a Group by César Van Loo, an important work by the artist as this is his reception piece at the Académie, which really deserves, it must be said, to be in a museum.” We underlined the most important passages, which should be restated as follows : the Conseil d’Etat benefited from a deposit by the Louvre, totally forbidden by law, and this important painting is endangered by this deposit. This is totally flabbergasting. This painting should be returned to the Louvre immediately with nothing in exchange.

16. Ary Scheffer (1795-1858)
Portrait of
Odilon Barrot

Oil on canvas - 140 x 97 cm
Paris, Conseil d’Etat
(deposit of the
château of Versailes)
Photo : All rights reserved

The Conseil d’Etat does not “hold” only this Van Loo. There are also a large painting by Merry Joseph Blondel, Fountain and Napoleon I at the Palais-Royal, a Portrait of Odilon Barrot by Ary Scheffer (ill. 16), a painting by Auguste Couder deposited by Versailles, Installation of the Conseil d’Etat at the Palais du Petit-Luxembourg… The spokesperson for the Conseil d’Etat confirmed that these works are indeed held there and said that some of them hang in offices and can only be seen during the annual patrimony days weekend. He admitted that this indeed did not correspond to the spirit, nor even the letter, of the law. He was only partially sincere as he stated at the same time that several paintings could be seen without any problem, saying that the Conseil d’Etat was in fact a historical monument “open to the public”. Quite obviously, when we showed up (without previous warning) at the entrance to the Conseil d’Etat to say that we wished “to enter in order to see the paintings exhibited in the rooms open to the public”, they practically laughed at us, telling us to come back…during the Journées du Patrimoine.

Paintings sent abroad

17. Noël-Nicolas
Coypel (1690-1734)
A Nymph and Love, 1734
Oil on canvas - 72 x 56 cm
Paris, Turkish embassy
(deposit of the
Photo : All rights reserved

Many works from national museums can be found in embassies. These are even at times those of foreign missions…How can one justify the deposit of several paintings from the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre at the Turkish embassy in Paris ? There are notably two Noël-Nicolas Coypel, Innocence and Love and A Nymph and Love (ill. 17). On 19 March we called this embassy to ask if we could see the paintings, as well as the Gaspar Pieter Verbruggen, and the Albert Besnard (Young Girl at the Window) bequeathed in 1911 to the national museums. We are still waiting for an answer.

Works deposited in French embassies abroad are just as inaccessible. There is no use in hoping to see one day The Probatic Pool by Giovanni Paolo Pannini which was blatantly sent in 1978 to the French embassy in Malaysia where it has disappeared, as is the case for the Château of Lugagnan in the Valley of Argelès by Achille Bénouville sent to the French embassy in London. The latter remains however one of the best endowed in works taken from national museums. There are a Constant Troyon, a Louis Français, a portrait by Joseph-Désiré Court, a pair by Hubert Robert, a Presumed Portrait of the Grammarian Dumarsais by Louis Tocqué deposit just in 1976, two Landscapes with Figures by Michele Pagano… This is not a complete list.
Another embassy with many holdings, no doubt thanks to divine providence, is that to the Holy See at the Vatican. Notably, one can see there (or rather cannot as the public is not admitted) two beautiful pendants by Nicolas Lancret, Gallant Conversation and The Small Bell (a story by La Fontaine) as well as a Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer. In passing, one might also list The Ferryman by Corot and A Baptism at the Church in Tréport by Eugène Isabey in Copenhaguen ; View of Saint Paul’s Door in Rome, Morning Effect by Count Auguste de Forbin in Tel Aviv (ill. 18) ; The Ring of Emperor Charles V by Pierre Revoil in Madrid [12] ; another Hubert Robert in The Hague ; two by Claude-Guy Hallé (Children’s Games, Fishing and Children’s Games, the Dog Jumping), The Capture of Saverne by Eugène Devéria in Berlin…

18. Auguste de Forbin (1777-1841)
View of Saint Paul’s Door in Rome,
Morning Effect

Oil on canvas
Tel Aviv, French
embassy (deposit of the Louvre)
Photo : RMN

However, you don’t need to be an ambassador to enjoy the government’s artistic largesse : France’s permanent representative to the UN can boast having two Corots belonging to the Louvre in his apartment. These two paintings were sent to New York in 1962 with their original frames. During the inventory check for the Louvre in 2002, the two frames had been removed and replaced and were located in storage and in poor condition besides, for unexplainable reasons and at an unknown date. Today these giltwood frames have returned to the Louvre but without the canvases which still decorate the diplomat’s apartment.

19. Eugène Thirion (1777-1841)
Moses Saved
from the Waters
, vers 1885
Oil on canvas - 105 x 230
Rome, French embassy (deposit of the
Musée d’Orsay)
Photo : RMN

In a positive light, we would like to speak of the Palazzo Farnese, Frenche embassy in Rome, and a story which reveals the problems facing certain works but also, more rarely, the real interest demonstrated at times by the institutions holding the deposits. In 1996, during an inventory check in the palace, “in one of its many cellars”, an important painting by Eugène Thirion representing Moses Saved from the Waters (ill. 19) was discovered, no doubt deposited there a very long time ago. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to its honor, did not skimp in its efforts. The person in charge informed the Louvre (in fact the painting belonged to the Musée d’Orsay) that he had “immediately put [the painting] in a safe place and protected [it] as much as possible”. He added also that the work “[was] in poor condition[…] and that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs [wished] to fund its restoration in order to exhibit it one day in one of the rooms at the Palazzo Farnese.” [13]

20. Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ (1842-1923)
The Bearers of
Bad News
, 1871
Oil on canvas - 74 x 121 cm
Tunis, Ministry of
Foreign Affairs
(deposit of the Musée d’Orsay)
Photo : All rights reserved

In closing this chapter devoted to the works deposited abroad outside a museum, we should add a word concerning those linked to the history of decolonization. This is the case, for example, of one the most important paintings by Jean Lecomte de Nouÿ, The Bearers of Bad News (ill. 20) deposited in Tunis and which remained there after its independence. This painting, long thought to have disappeared (and noted as such in Roger Diederen’s study on Lecomte de Nouÿ – see article in French) is in fact still held at the Tunisian Ministry of Cultural Affairs. There is no reason why it should not return to Orsay where it is clearly lacking.
Finally, in Syria, at the French Collège des Lazaristes in Damascus, there is a work by the Swedish painter Hugo Salmson, First Communion, which belongs to the Musée d’Orsay but has been there since 1927. Due to the cost, this painting could not even come back to France for the exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille, Echappées Nordiques, where it should have been presented.

French prefects like art

21. Albert Edelfelt (1854-1905)
Heavenly Office next to the Sea, 1881
Oil on canvas - 122 x 180 cm
Colmar, Prefecture (deposit of the
Musée d’Orsay)
Photo : Didier Rykner

At this same exhibition, visitors could see a canvas by a late 19th century Northern artist, Albert Edelfelt (ill. 21), on deposit at the préfecture in Colmar. But the best endowed prefecture is that of Chambéry, which holds notably two large paintings by Joseph-Marie Vien Two Greek Youths Take the Oath to never Love and Two Lovers Unite at Hymen’s Altar (ill. 22) which are part of a series of four paintings for Madame du Barry’s pavilion in Louveciennes. There is also a Moses Saved from the Waters by Jean-Jacques Lagrenée, known as the Young, of impressive size (327 x 260 cm).

22. Joseph-Marie Vien (1716-1809)
Two Greek
Youths Take the Oath to never Love and
Two Lovers Unite at Hymen’s Altar
, 1774
Oil on canvas - 270 x 240 cm
Chambéry, Prefecture (deposit of the
Photo : All rights reserved

We called the prefecture of Savoie which told us that its works could not be seen, except by invitation from the prefect. When we asked why these works which are supposed to be accessible to the public were not available, we were told very firmly : “they are exhibited to the public during the ‘Journées du Patrimoine’.” The response is very pragmatic, and often given by the establishments holding these deposits. Yet, it is obvious that works held in a building which is only open to the public for the ‘Journées du Patrimoine’ (that is, at most, two days a year) cannot be considered as being deposited “for exhibition to the public”.
Fortunately, one of François-André Vincent’s masterpieces, The Rapt of Orythius which had been deposited like the previous paintings since 1867 at the prefecture in Chambéry and exhibited in the staircase, was returned to a museum, the Beaux-Arts in Rennes, in July 2008. In exchange, two works from the FNAC Calm and Serenity by Maurice Chabas and The Ground Holes by Jean-Maxime Relange were deposited in Chambéry, an acceptable solution, above all a legal one, more so than the one originally suggested of sending one from the museum in Rennes. The Vincent work will hang in Rennes after the refurbishment of the galleries freed up by the Musée de Bretagne. This will not unfortunately be the case for Jean-Baptiste Regnault’s Alcibiades Snatched by Socrates from the Arms of Voluptousness, which has not been seen at the prefecture in Chambéry since at least 1974.

We would also like to mention Lilia, by Carolus-Duran, at the prefecture in Privas and a Jean-Paul Laurens, The Ghibellines which has been at the prefecture in Rochechouart since 1920.

Generously endowed city halls

23. Alfred de Curzon (1716-1809)
Oil on canvas - 159 x 96 cm
Sermaize-les-Bains, City Hall
Photo : Musée d’Orsay

Unlike ministries or embassies, even more so than prefectures, city halls are often partly accessible to the public. Thus, it would be hard to complain about the one in Sermaize-les-Bains which holds several paintings from the Musée d’Orsay although we might wonder what they are doing there. They can indeed be seen in the marriage hall, open on request. Notably, Psyche by Alfred de Curzon (ill. 23) could easily find a museum to welcome it. The Return of the Shepherd by Henri Duhem deposited by Orsay at the city hall of Sion-les-Mines, was “too dark” and did not really please the municipal counselors (it hung in the Council room). They thus decided to get rid of it by shipping it back to Paris. On 17 April 2007, the mayor wrote to the director of the Fonds National d’Art Contemporain : “Given that we do not have the means to hold those art works entrusted to us by the government in satisfactory conditions […] I would be grateful if you could proceed to recover them so that they can be maintained and enhanced” and the director in turn forwarded the request to the Musée d’Orsay on 20 June 2007. It seems that the painting has not yet been recovered and is now kept in the attic at city hall. There is at least one museum, in Douai, which would be delighted to receive it on deposit as Henri Duhem was born there and is one of the museum donors.

It would be painstaking to list all of the works deposited in city halls in France by national museums. These are mainly paintings or sculptures belonging today to the Musée d’Orsay, often minor. Among the more interesting canvases, we should point out, besides the ones quoted above : a landscape by Léon Bonnat,Basque Region, in Vichy ; a fine painting by Jules Lefebvre, Nymph and Bacchus ; The Grandfather by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret which is in Bar-sur-Aube. The description on the 2006 inventory check states : “The work presents several gaps. Cracks are visible all over the painting (especially in the lower part). The paint has blistered and come off half-way up. […] [It] lies with other paintings on the floor next to a computer. It is barely protected as it is simply covered by a piece of paper”…
Although these works are not as important as the ones mentioned previously, there is no doubt that they could easily find a museum to take them on deposit.

Some conclusions

Thus, it is clear that works deposited before 1981 outside of a museum rarely respond to the requirement that they be shown to the public. We only studied three national museums here, and only the case of paintings and sculptures. If the investigation were to include other national museums as well as furniture and art objects, the results obviously would be even more instructive.

Nor should we forget regional museums either whose collections do not even appear to be protected – only relatively so as we have seen – by the law. There is nothing to prevent a mayor or a president of the Conseil Général from helping himself in “his museum” and we can imagine that if such were the case, curators would not dare turn down the request.

The only exception to the rule of exhibiting the works to the public would be returning or maintaining the works in situ, at the location for which they were produced or to which they belong for historical reasons. This is the case notably for the paintings commissioned by City Hall in Versailles in 1725 and executed by some of the best artists at the time, also those decorating the chapel in the Ecole Militaire as well as the Funerary monument of Cardinal Mazarin by Coysevox, Le Hongre and Tuby which obviously should not be removed from the Institut. We should also include the example of the Conseil Général in the Rhône region which inherited the prefecture building holding, since the 19th century, two large paintings by Jean Restout. These works are presented in a room where they are part of the wood paneling installed during the building’s construction, thus making their return to a museum very debatable.

Unauthorized deposits are not only shocking legally, they also use up an enormous amount of resources which could be put to better use elsewhere. Each of the national museums has a curator in charge of deposits. He has to go check their location on a regular basis, take care of their restoration, be constantly in touch with administrative offices… This work is more time consuming than the one required for works held in a museum and the results in no way benefit the public.

Even if these deposits were legitimate, they would still be loans, temporary by nature. Yet, the establishments holding these deposits, as we have seen, often consider themselves as owning these works. When receiving a request for an exhibition, they often demand another object in exchange, something which is unthinkable when it comes to a private collector. The problem of conservation conditions is an essential one. Generally, they are less satisfactory than those in a museum. We mentioned several objects above which are held in objectionable conditions and are not protected by the most basic safety measures. The number of works which have disappeared, were stolen or damaged is proportionately higher outside of museums than inside, as demonstrated without question by the inventory check.

It would be useless to raise a scandal about the deposit of works, although banned by law, which are of no real interest to a museum and would inevitably end up in storage anyway. On the other hand, this veritable privatization of objects which belong to everyone, and which should be accessible to the public, for the benefit of just a few is totally unacceptable. These works, in the hundreds, should return to the museums. And not necessarily to the Louvre, Versailles or Orsay, except for those which fill real gaps in their collections such as the Albani in the Sénat. There are more than enough museums in France which would be delighted to welcome them. We would once again refer to the Louvre-Lens, this poorly organized project which should have been managed better : why not create a real museum, with real collections. If all of the important 18th century works scattered illegitimately throughout administrative buildings were deposited in Lens, this museum would become one of the leading ones in France for that period [14].

Finally, we understand that embassies, the Elysée and certain ministries should represent France in the most distinguished way possible when welcoming official visitors. A prestigious décor [15] is justified as it contributes to spreading French cultural values. These institutions should then act responsibly and implement, with their own budget, an acquisitions policy. By adding to the wealth of our national heritage, they would thus make a virtue of necessity.

Version française

Didier Rykner, vendredi 10 juillet 2009


[1] The exact text stated : Works from national museums may be deposited with the aim of exhibiting them to the public : - in government museums and in its public establishments ; - in museums which are listed and controlled […] - in museums depending on foundations and associations recognized of public interest ; - in museums abroad ; - in historical monuments, even if they are not considered a museum, on condition that they be open to the public ; - in parks and gardens of national monuments.

[2] The underlining is ours. The Ministry of Culture answered our questions saying that : “As this concerns works deposited before 1981, they may all remain at the establishment which received the deposit and these deposits are then authorized on a regular basis after inventory check.” This interpretation is mistaken : the text of the decree is very clear, these works are to be exhibited to the public.

[3] ‘Mobilier National’ is in charge of furniture for public institutions

[4] Furthermore, the minister must approve it.

[5] Furthermore, the minister must approve it.

[6] The underlining is ours.

[7] The Ministry of Culture said about these two works : “Two sculptures have been made available, in a temporary way, to the Assemblée Nationale by the public establishment at Versailles at the same time as the Parliament returned large spaces occupied by the Congress to it.” This is then a kind of exchange in compensation, which does not seem justified and which the Assemblée Nationale itself did not request.

[8] The complete explanation is as follows : “An official apartment is entirely furnished by the government, as the government’s purpose is not to lodge a person, but to allow for the organization of government missions, notably organizing events, receptions, etc., and this whether or not the office holder lives there or not in fact. This is the case for the residences of Ambassadors or Hôtels des Préfectures. We thus have government allotted apartments, furnished by the holders who live there for work reasons (the case for doctors), and official apartments furnished and decorated by the government.” Obviously, the difference between government allotted apartments (appartéments de fonction) and official apartments is extremely slight, with holders of official apartments often living there most of the time.

[9] This painting was recently on display at the Grand Palais in the exhibition Une oeuvre peut en cacher une autre.

[10] It seems, however, that these two paintings now belong to Matignon and not to the Louvre. One of the work is a replica of one of the Largillière

[11] In the short response to our questions provided by the Ministry of Culture, the deposit of this painting is justified as follows : “the painting representing the Congress of Paris in 1856 by Edouard Dubufe was lent , temporarily, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the French presidency of the European Union, thus an opportunity to reveal this little-known work to a wide public.” This is not a very convincing explanation as we do not really understand to which “wide public” it is referring.

[12] A painting which would be perfect for the museum in Lyon or Bourg-en-Bresse.

[13] The website for the Musée d’Orsay erroneously states that it is in the Embassy to the Holy See.

[14] We did not talk about provincial museums in this investigation. We should also take a look (and no doubt will do so one day) into this question, as there seems to be no rules for them. There is no law, or regulation forbidding local institutions from requesting works from regional museums to ornate their city halls or “conseil régional” offices, even government allotted apartments.

[15] Let us remember though that they may ask the Mobilier National (for works produced after 1800) or the Fonds National d’Art Contemporain.

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