The Owl Has Flown

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)
An Owl on a Bare Tree
Oil on Canvas - 25.5 x 31.5 cm
France, Private Collection
Photo : D. R.

The sale of the Friedrich painting (ill.) to a French private collector (see the interview with Bertrand Gautier and Bertrand Talabardon) once again raises the question of the acquisition of National Treasures.

True, other National Treasures have been, or will be, purchased by the Louvre. In all probability, we will soon see the Fra Angelico and the Jean Malouel panels join the museum collections. But the occasional victories, past or future, should not prevent us from remembering the failures, which continue to increase in number. Listing a work as a National Treasure means that it deserves deploying every measure available to keep it from leaving the country. There is no shame in admitting defeat, on condition that no effort was spared. The Friedrich affair leaves us with a stale taste in our mouths as we can legitimately wonder if the Louvre really attempted to acquire it, or rather deliberately let time go by, giving the impression that it hoped to then negotiate it at the best price.

Vincent Pomarède, head of the Département des Peintures, whom we contacted concerning this subject, told us that the museum, contrary to what we have just expressed, "does [not] attempt to use the time of the legal deadline in order to lower the price which [it] negotiates." He in fact explained that "time does not necessarily play out in favor of the government, on the contrary ; near the end of the legal time limit, the seller knows for example that he will perhaps recover the chance to export it and the pressure is then on the government instead."
We do believe him, but in an interview granted to L’Estampille-L’Objet d’art [1] devoted to acquisitions, his commitment to acquiring the painting seemed to be half-hearted at best, basically explaining "that the price was [still] to be negotiated". However, Bertrand Gautier and Bertrand Talabardon found a buyer on the French market, long before the deadline, at the price they had set, that is 6.5 million euros. What would have happened on the international market if the painting had obtained its export authorization ?

We have often voiced our regret at the very high prices paid for National Treasures, the foremost being that of the Ingres drawing at one million euros, and the Portrait of Count Molé, again by Ingres, at 19 million euros. Obviously, in the case of the Friedrich painting, the work was well worth the asking price.
True, Vincent Pomarède told us that it "remains in any case banned for export for the moment [and that] another negotiation with the new owner can now begin." But the conditions have totally changed and it is hard to see how he could offer a lower price than the one which was paid. In fact, the owner probably does not want to let go of his newly acquired purchase right away. Whatever the case, at the end of the stipulated thirty months, the Louvre will have to state its intentions and what it plans to do : either it does not make any offers, in which case the export authorization will be then issued, compromising the future of the painting for national heritage. Or else, the museum makes an offer acceptable to the collector (we would all agree that this seems highly unlikely) and the painting would become the property of the Louvre.

Bertrand Talabardon and Bertrand Gautier told us, in their interview, that the new owner is well disposed towards museums. Should we therefore expect a happy ending at either short or long term ? We sincerely hope this will be the case. But, in the long run, that will not resolve the problem of Treasures which continue to be, as we have already written before (see article in French), less and less National.

Version française

Didier Rykner, mardi 13 décembre 2011


[1] Issue number 466, March 2011.

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