Il Ritornante, a virtual national treasure

Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978)
Il Ritornante, 1917
Oil on canvas - 94 x 77.9 cm
Paris, Musée national d’Art moderne
Photo : Christie’s Paris

9/3/09 – France, Museums – Commission consultative des trésors nationaux – On 17 December 2008 the Commission consultative des trésors nationaux convened in Paris for its monthly meeting. The purpose of this authority, made up for the most part of specialists in various artistic fields, is to propose the acceptance or rejection to the French Ministry of Culture of export certificates for works submitted by national museums.
French law is extremely generous. Only those objects over a certain estimate (150,000€ for paintings, for example) and on French soil for more than 50 years can be banned from export. The museums then have only 30 months to raise the money corresponding to the market price (and which in many cases far exceeds it).

Thus, on 17 December, three objects from the Pierre Bergé auction came before the commission. Only three, for what was labeled “the auction of the century”, seems a meager offer indeed. But orders were clear, if only implied : Pierre Bergé should not in any way be disappointed. The Louvre did not submit any export ban, not even for the Portrait of the Dedreux Children(see news item of 24/2/09). “[This museum] holds a beautiful collection [by Géricault]” was Marie-Christine Labourdette’s answer to Le Figaro. So what ? At least two museums in the provinces would have benefited from its acquisition : Rouen and Lyon.
One of the three items submitted was the Armchair with Dragons by Eileen Gray. The request for a listing was turned down, quite logically, as it does not have its original upholstery (as in fact pointed out in the catalogue : “covered in brown leather at a later date”) [1]. The other two were the Burne-Jones tapestry and the Chirico painting. In the case of these last works, the commission handed down a unanimous decision, a rare occurrence : they were to be listed as national treasures.

And yet, the Chirico was not banned for export before the auction as the ministry did not follow, an almost unique instance, the commission’s advice. We spoke with the ministry which answered by saying : “The Ministry of Culture and Communications has four months from the date when the certificate is requested to finalize the matter, ultimately decided, favorably or unfavorably, by the minister.” If the Chirico painting had exceeded the sum granted for the preemption, it would have been sold to the highest bidder and it is misleading to think that the export ban could then have been applied. In fact, there is a gentleman’s agreement between Christie’s and the ministry by which , as is only natural, the certificate is to be issued before the auction. The answer was supposed to be given before the catalogue was even printed.

None of this was illegal : Pierre Bergé had the right to lobby the Elysée convincingly to avoid a listing as a national treasure, the Ministry of Culture also had the right to ignore the commission’s advice and, furthermore, had no other choice as the decision was made higher up. The stakes were nevertheless very high. If the bidding had gone far beyond the estimate, there is no doubt that this virtual national treasure would have left French soil. In this case, we must admit that the Ministry of Culture managed the operation (with a bit of luck) rather well since the two works which the commission recommended be banned from export now find themselves in national museums (as a reminder, the Burne-Jones tapestry was finally turned over to Orsay, to compensate so to speak – see news item of 23/2/09). So this is the way things get done in France today. By maneuvering and scheming. Not a very glorious plan of action. What is the purpose of having a commission of experts if their advice goes unheeded ?

Version française

Didier Rykner, lundi 9 mars 2009


[1] This did not keep the armchair from soaring to 21,905,000€ with charges, pulverizing its estimate of 2 to 3 million euros. But that concerns only the buyer and is none of our business.

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