The Imbroglio Concerning Nicolas Tournier’s Christ Carrying the Cross

1. Nicolas Tournier (1590-1639)
Christ Carrying the Cross,
between 1628 et 1638
oil on canvas - 220 x 121 cm
Photo : Galerie Aaron

7/11/11 - Museum - Toulouse, Musée des Augustins - Libération today revealed [1] an affair about which we ourselves had been preparing an article in the last few days. A painting by Nicolas Tournier (ill. 1) currently being shown by Mark Weiss at the Salon Paris-Tableau, which had been presented at two Maastricht fairs, and which we had pointed out several times for its beauty and importance (see articles of 16/3/10 and (in French) of 23/3/11), was inventoried as belonging to the Musée des Augustins until 1818. It subsequently vanished into thin air under unexplainable circumstances.

The facts are much more complicated than appear in Vincent Noce’s article. He expresses his indignation that a stolen painting should be offered on the art market, explaining that the antique dealer, Hervé Aaron, who discovered it at a Sotheby’s auction, should have returned it, adding that he « could not really ignore the fact that the canvas was public property ».
But indeed, it is quite possible that Aaron did not know it belonged to the museum, especially since the museum’s chief curator, Axel Hémery, also the author of the catalogue for the Nicolas Tournier retrospective which he himself organized in 2001 was not aware either.

We contacted Axel Hémery who confirmed what Hervé Aaron and Mark Weiss, the painting’s successive owners, had told us and which we have known since it was presented at Maastrich in 2010 where we saw it for the first time [2].
The curator told us : « I received a photograph of the painting before the auction but my first reaction was that I did not believe it. After Hervé Aaron bought it, he informed me, but it was shortly before Maastricht and I did not come to Paris to see it. Although it sounds incredible, I saw no connection to the museum painting. It was not until much later, after Weiss purchased it, following several messages from some of my colleagues, that I understood that this was the canvas that had disappeared from the museum after 1818. »

2. Nicolas Tournier (1590-1639)
Christ Being Placed in the Tomb,
between 1628 et 1638
oil on canvas - 314 x 166 cm
Toulouse, Musée des Augustins
Photo : D. R.

The Axel Hémery catalogue explained in the entry on Christ Being Placed in the Tomb (ill. 2) by Nicolas Tournier, today held at the Musée des Augustins : « The Church of the Pénitents Noirs in Toulouse had an exceptional ensemble of Tournier paintings, of which the only one remaining is this one and the Battle of the Red Rocks. In fact, Christ Being Placed in the Tomb was on one side of Christ on the Cross placed above the main altar and its pair Christ Carrying the Cross on the other. This loss is especially sad since the three paintings illustrated scenes with three figures, thus different compositions from other Passion scenes produced by Tournier. »
So it was of course logical that the painting be offered to the Musée des Augustins. Since it did not react, the dealer then sold it to another gallery, Mark Weiss in London. He in turn contacted the Musée des Augustins, which once again showed no interest. It was only in April of this year that the curator, after realizing the painting’s origins, informed the British gallery.

We might find it hard to believe that both art dealers did not know that this painting belonged to the museum in Toulouse before 1818 but the only mention of this establishment comes at the end of the catalogue, in the list of paintings known from their source. Christ Carrying the Cross does indeed appear in the list with the following entry : « Toulouse, pénitents noirs, pair to Christ Being Placed in the Tomb from the Musée des Augustins (cat. n°34), which disappeared from the museum after 1818. »
The complete description for this ensemble, stated in the entry quoted above, does not however say that Christ Carrying the Cross belongs to the museum. There is no further reference in the catalogue and it is quite easy to overlook this fact. We ourselves, after having mentioned the painting on our site twice, had not noticed it. And it is rather unfair to accuse the dealers of not being honest as they have stated, since the very beginning, that this painting came from the Pénitents noirs, as pointed out in the display signs on both occasions at the Maastricht fair and also at Paris - Tableau. Indeed, it would mean requiring them to be more informed than the author of the catalogue himself who, even after being contacted, had not understood that this was actually the painting missing from the museum.

It was unfortunate that Axel Hémery did not react the first time but "to err is human" and in this case, especially so since we are talking about an exemplary museum. Despite a restricted budget, he has been particularly competent in managing his establishment, organizing beautiful exhibitions, making discerning acquisitions, working permanently on restorations, offering dense presentations of the collections with an ongoing concern also for displaying works in storage, in short, all qualities we continuously extol on our website.

Considering the various elements of the case outlined above, Hervé Aaron’s good faith, as confirmed by the fact that he immediately contacted the Musée des Augustins and displayed the painting openly for everyone to see (we ourselves can testify to this) without concealing the source - and who also, in passing, rediscovered it rendering it once again its place in art history - as well as that of Mark Weiss, when purchasing it from Aaron, should in no way be doubted. Furthermore, in May 2011, the Service des musées de France informed Mark Weiss, through Axel Hémery, that although it did not consider it legal for the painting to leave the museum or France, it did not think that any legal action would be taken. The British dealer was clear in stating his intention to present the painting at Paris-Tableau and had invited Axel Hémery in October to see it at the gallery.

Nevertheless, based on our legal knowledge (and well founded), the painting is indeed, in principle, the property of the Musée des Augustins. Works in French public collections are inalienable and imprescriptible, a fact we have always fought for here. This means that an object which enters a museum cannot be taken away, in any way, forever in time, which implies that although it may have disappeared for almost two hundred years, it will always belong to the establishment.
The French Ministry of Culture has backtracked on its original statement since, despite what the Service des musées de France said in May, its communications department now confirmed to us what Vincent Noce had stated, that it « was claiming the painting, plundered by the Revolution, but belonging to the State [3] », and added that it had « filed a claim at the OCBC », that is the Office central de lutte contre le trafic des Biens Culturels. This obviously dramatizes a situation which could have been much simpler if the museum’s ownership had been established after the canvas was rediscovered in Florence, upon returning to France.

A solution now needs to be found and should consist in negotiations given the recent events we described above. This will be all the easier as the canvas has now become impossible to sell. Any potential buyer can no longer ignore the painting’s history and pretend to be acting on good faith. It is however too bad that this affair erupted at the same time as Paris-Tableau, a remarkable and very successful initiative aimed at restoring Paris as a leading contributor in the international market for Old Masters.

Version française

Didier Rykner, lundi 7 novembre 2011


[1] Vincent Noce, « Un "Portement de croix" pas très orthodoxe », Libération, 7/11/11.

[2] We had in fact seen the canvas at Maastricht on two different occasions, then at the Mark Weiss gallery, and discussed it several times with the Aaron gallery as well as with Mark Weiss and Axel Hémery.

[3] In a press release, Paris-Tableau announced that Mark Weiss had not yet been informed.

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