The Acquisition of Jean Malouel’s Pietà by the Louvre


Attributed to Jean Malouel
(known since 1397-1415)
Pietà with Saint John and Two Angels
Tempera on panel - 102 x 75.5 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : Musée du Louvre

13/01/12 - Acquisition - Paris, Musée du Louvre - About a month ago we had announced (see article) that the Louvre was set to purchase a national treasure, a painting attributed to Jean Malouel, Pietà with Saint John and Two Angels (ill.). This is now official, with the price tag amounting to 7.8 million euros, made possible thanks to funding from Axa, the French insurance company.

The acquisition is cause for rejoicing as it constitutes a major addition to the museum. There are extremely few instances of known works held in collections by Jean Malouel, the uncle of the Limbourg brothers and painter to the Duke of Burgundy Philippe le Hardi, active notably at the Chartreuse in Champmol. Until now there were only two paintings attributed to him with a high probability (but in fact without total certainty) : the large Round Pietà at the Louvre and the Virgin with Child Surrounded by Angels in Berlin.
We had asked the Louvre in an email dated 11 January 2012 about the conditions of the purchase, which seemed to be curious, but to no avail. However, the media has reacted today, evidently informed by the museum which, strangely enough, forgot to answer our query and send us its press release [1] This is due perhaps to the fallout (fortunately not radioactive) to our article on Fukushima...

The case could indeed have drawn a certain amount of criticism. The work had been sold a few years ago by the priest of Vic-le-Comte, a small city in Auvergne. Apparently it came from a shed adjoining the presbytery (so, theoretically outside of the public domain). The new owner, a second-hand dealer having happily discovered that what he had acquired for next to nothing was actually a very important work, proposed it to the Louvre in 1999 [2]. But the Parisian museum very wisely asked itself whether the sale had been legal. If the painting belonged to the church in 1905, the date when the separation of Church and State became law, did it not then become property of city hall, in turn part of the public domain and in this case prohibited to deaccessioning and imprescriptible ?
After a thorough examination of all the legal aspects, the Louvre concluded that there was no proof that the work had belonged to the city which was not aware of its existence. As a matter of fact, it does not appear in the 1905 inventory [3]. However, the presumption of ownership by the city was admitted, which explains why the Louvre wanted Vic-le-Comte to receive a compensation from the seller. Thus, of the 7.8 million euros handed over by the Louvre (or rather the generous patron), 2.3 went to city hall.

Although this represents a bizarre and unprecedented procedure, it is understandable that the museum acted as it did. However, it might have been useful to apply the process for listing as a historical monument which, considering the vague origins and conditions in which the owner acquired the work, would certainly not have resulted, at least in this case, in a compensation. Such an action would have allowed the work to be banned for export permanently and also limited the price demanded by the seller.
In any case, this affair reflects the affliction to heritage caused when priests resort to selling objects from their parish. We must always remember that works in churches, even those not protected as historical monuments, do not belong to the clergy, but to the city, who cannot sell them either (except to a public institution) : in France works belonging to the public domain cannot be deaccessioned and remain imprescriptible.

Version française


Didier Rykner, lundi 16 janvier 2012


Notes

[1] This explains why we only have a small photograph to present.

[2] We were not aware of this part of the story, revealed by an AFP dispatch.

[3] We would like to point out that this type of inventory was not always complete.



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