Sale of a decorative set by Henri Martin from a public building in Béziers


1. Henri Martin (1860-1943)
Rural Idyll at the Etang de Thau, 1932
Oil on canvas - 198.1 x 339.6 cm
Béziers, Chambre de Commerce
To be sold in London at Christie’s 25 June 2008

On 25 June 2008, Christie’s London will auction off a cycle of decorative paintings by Henri Martin. The seller is the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Béziers. This set had been commissioned from the artist in 1932 to decorate the Salle des Délibérations on the first floor of the building. To make matters worse, the décor will be sold separately, one painting at a time !

A native of Toulouse, Henri Martin entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts there in 1877 before moving up to Paris where he studied under Jean-Paul Laurens. Influenced by the Symbolism of Gustave Moreau and Puvis de Chavanne as well as by the neo-Impressionism of Seurat, he produced landscapes and scenes of contemporary life and was one of the most active decorators in the first third of the 20th century. His décors can be found in Paris (Hôtel de Ville, City Halls of the 5th, 6th and 10th arrondissements, the Sorbonne, Conseil d’Etat at the Palais Royal,…) as well as in the provinces (Hôtel de Ville in Tours, Préfecture du Lot, Hôtel Terminus in the Lyon-Perrache train station, Capitole in Toulouse…). Let us also remember that Henri Martin painted an Apollo and the Muses in the hall of the Chamber of Commerce in Béziers. Unlike the paintings to be sold in London, executed on canvases and probably (we have not seen pictures of the original décor) inserted into the woodwork, this one was painted directly on the wall. Many local artists also contributed in the decoration of the building such as the painter Raoul Guirard (to whom the museum will soon devote an exhibition) and the sculptor Jean-Antoine Injalbert. Most of these works are still on location.
The paintings up for sale are of excellent quality and highly evocative of the Mediterranean, suffused with its light. The set is made up of four canvases in vertical format (ill. 2 and 3) and two larger horizontal compositions (ill. 1) representing scenes from a wine harvest and country life. Still in a pointillist style, the influences of Jean-François Millet and Segantini are definitely visible, especially in Idyll (ill. 1). The estimations are very high (from 300,000 to 400,000 £ each).


2. Henri Martin (1860-1943)
Grape Harvest, 1932
Oil on canvas - 205.2 x 109.5 cm
Béziers, Chambre de Commerce
To be sold in London at Christie’s 25 June 2008



2. Henri Martin (1860-1943)
Grape Harvest, 1932
Oil on canvas - 205.2 x 109.5 cm
Béziers, Chambre de Commerce
To be sold in London at Christie’s 25 June 2008

Selling a décor intended for a public building, still preserved in situ, is obviously perfectly scandalous. Either everything was done legally, and this would prove clearly that the existing laws are not adequate, or it was done outside of a legal framework, in which case the sale should be cancelled. The Chamber of Commerce and Industry is a public establishment. One might therefore legitimately wonder if it can dispose at will of the art works it holds, particularly in the case of sections of a décor located in the building since its conception, thus “real estate” in purpose, if not by nature. Logically, the answer is no. This point merits further discussion.
But beyond its purely legal ramifications, this story also implies a moral aspect (no matter how old-fashioned it may sound). How can anyone accept the dismantling of a decorative ensemble linked to the local economic history of the times ? Evidently aware of the potential scandal which the sale might provoke, the Chamber of Commerce was careful not to publicize it. The DRAC offices (Regional Ministry of Culture services) were not informed of the auction of an important part of the heritage of Béziers. The planned sale was not pointed out either to the museum nor city hall, which both discovered it only after we contacted them as confirmed to us by Olivier Guiraud, municipal councilman in charge of Plastic Arts and Museums. The director of the Chamber of Commerce must have a heavy conscience for having promised to call us back several times in order to explain his stand and the sale conditions, but never doing so.

The various persons we have reached have been cautious in talking about the matter. The laws are extremely complex, difficult to apply and allow for different interpretations. Art works belonging to public institutions are, in fact, not sufficiently protected. An export ban in this case is not adapted to this type of work which is meant to be preserved as a decorative cycle in its original location. After all, it is hard to imagine a private patron spending 1.5 to 2 million euros to keep it in the building.
Deaccessioning no longer seems to threaten French museum works, at least for now. But is this a reason for accepting the auctioning off of heritage holdings in all of the public buildings which are not museums per se ? This sale could open another Pandora’s box of troubles. We are the witnesses here, once more, of official vandalism. Our investigation has set off a reaction at the DRAC, the city and the national services of the Culture Ministry. Will this along with a local protest be enough to stop the sale ? We can always hope so even if we do not really believe it will happen.


Didier Rykner, lundi 9 juin 2008



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