The furnishings at the château de Sassenage on the auction block by the Fondation de France

1. Château de Sassenage, Isère, France
Photo : Badhy, Wikimedia Commons

Next May 30th the Hôtel Drouot auction house will put up a major portion of the furnishings of the château de Sassenage, in Isère (ill. 1), for sale unless something is done to stop it. The seller is no other than the Fondation de France to whom the Marquise de Béranger bequeathed it in 1971 specifying that it keep it all together, via the Conseil international de la langue française, and open it to the public. The Conseil Général de l’Isère, which since then and with the help of the government, has spent a considerable amount in the restoration and upkeep of the château and the listed park (20% for the CG and 40% for the government), released a press statement last Friday,16 May denouncing the situation. In it, the Conseil Général states that “Sassenage is one of the rare châteaus where the furniture and décor have been preserved since the Ancien Régime : the value of the artistic heritage lies in the total holdings, real-estate and non-real estate ! [1]”

This affair recalls a few others that managed to end successfully : the furniture sale for the chateau du Randan, in the Puy-de-Dôme, former estate of Madame Adélaïde, sister of Louis-Philippe, which was to have taken place in May 1999 and which was entirely bought back by the government to be deposited there after restoration ; that of the objects at the former Hôpital de Valenciennes and, more recently in the United Kingdom, that of Dumfries Manor saved finally thanks to the decisive action taken by Prince Charles (see news item of 29/6/07). The fact that the Fondation de France is responsible for this sale is particularly shocking. Let us remember that the purpose of the foundation is to help “carry out projects of a philanthropic, educational, scientific, social or cultural [2] nature” as indicated on its Internet website.

2. Ascribed to Joachim Van Sandrardt (1606-1688)
Four Evangelists
Oil on canvas - 133 x 183 cm
Listed as Monument Historique
Château de Sassenage
To be auctioned at Drouot on 30 May 2008

The site for the château states : “The magic of the décors and furniture of the Château transport you into the everyday life of the illustrious Bérenger-Sassenage family, and help you follow the Century of Lights in their footsteps”. Several of the paintings up for auction are listed as Monuments Historiques, notably a landscape by Joos de Momper and Sébastien Vranx, a battle scene by Pieter Snayers, a painting close to Jacques Blanchard which reproduces one of the compositions held at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux (Tobias Helps his Father to See Again), two canvases inspired by Poussin ascribed to Jean Cotelle the Younger and a remarkable Caravaggesque painting ascribed to Joachim Van Sandrardt (ill. 2). Besides the paintings, many ceramics, old arms, silver and important pieces of furniture – armchairs, chairs, dressers (ill. 3), etc. of Louis XV and Louis XVI periods, often signed – are to be sold (the sale catalogue can be seen here). According to Jean Guibal, chief curator for heritage and director of Culture et Patrimoine de l’Isère, the sale of the library is also planned.

3. Jean-François Hache (Cabinet maker from Grenoble)
Dresser of Louis XV period
85 x 127 x 67 cm
Listed as Monument Historique
Château de Sassenage
To be auctioned at Drouot on 30 May 2008

We were able to reach Madame Dominique Lemaistre, Directrice du mécénat at the Fondation de France. She explained to us that the Fondation de France was not a direct beneficiary of the bequest as it had only accepted it in the name of the association that managed it for thirty years (via a long lease). As the latter could no longer afford to maintain the estate, it returned it to the Fondation de France in 2002 which, after drawing up an inventory of the furnishings and “redesigning” the museum arrangement, decided to “balance the accounts by selling a part of the furniture to raise capital for the foundation which, under its control, finances the estate”. According to Dominique Lemaistre, the series of expenditures that were used to pay for restoration works on the building, reduced this capital to only 1.5 million euros [3]. She also added that the objects that were up for sale had not been displayed since the reopening and that the furnishings that are currently inside the château are of an equivalent value. Furthermore, the Fondation de France : “has asked the government under what conditions the furniture was listed since the Fondation de France does not have any proof of a request for such a listing”.

The Fondation de France’s position on the matter is untenable for several reasons. This bequest, even if it was supposed to go to the Conseil international de la langue française, was in fact left directly to the Fondation de France, its rightful heir. The will stated the Marquise’s intentions very clearly : “I wish that nothing be changed in the arrangement at Sassenages except for a minimum number of things(…), the ground level and the first floor are to be kept in their current state and might serve as a museum.” How can this clause be compatible with the extensive musuem modifications pointed out to us by Dominique Lemaistre ? One might begin to wonder if the furniture going up for sale is really kept in storage as she stated (but after all, this is not the issue here). The Conseil Général, in the person of Jean Guibal, is categorical in affirming that most of the objects were indeed on display. According to Jean Guibal : “They are selling the crown jewels, the most beautiful pieces of furniture”. A look at the photographs and a virtual visit of the castle on the Internet website [4], is proof enough that many of the sale objects were in fact visible at the time of the bequest. The small bureau of dark wood (cat. 177) is shown in the king’s bedroom as is the Louis XIV marble bust (cat. 171). As for the series of armchairs, it strangely resembles some of lot n° 199 in the catalogue and listed as Monument Historique… In the salon du château, the canapé is cat. 185 and in the music salon the “exceptional buffet” of chestnut, an unsigned work by Hache, is cat. 200. There is also in this same room the Tobias from the circle of Blanchard, a canvas ascribed to Sandradt (ill. 2) and the large battle scene by Pieter Snayers (cat. 7). In the Chambre de Madame, the desk with a Caumont estampille is lot n° 213.

It seems that the Fondation de France and the Conseil Général are not communicating. Dominique Lemaistre states that the former offered to cede all of the estate and any entailing income to the second on two occasions (four years ago and a week or so ago). Jean Guibal claims that that never happened and that it seems difficult to believe in such a proposal when the Conseil Général, according to M. Guibal, found out about the sale in the press and was not informed previously. Given this unacceptable situation, the executor of the Marquise de Béranger’s last will and testament, with the support of the Conseil Général de l’Isère, has filed an appeal for annulment before the court in Paris. Unfortunately, this appeal concerns only about twenty objects, the listed ones and others of regional interest, which seems to be insufficient. All of the château’s furnishings should be preserved as a whole. This problem could arise in the case of other private Monuments Historiques, which are not necessarily protected by personal wills. The sale of a whole group of furniture, thus separated permanently from its historic setting, is always an irretrievable loss for our cultural heritage and one which should not be accepted.

Didier Rykner, dimanche 25 mai 2008


[1] Printed in bold letters in the press statement.

[2] The bold print is ours.

[3] Dominique Lemaistre also indicated that the sale of furniture was only one of the initiatives that had been undertaken to recapitalize (notably a search for patrons…). Originally, the bequest also carried a furnished château and farms representing an equivalent of several hundred acres in Brittany, an apartment in Paris (17th arrondissement) and various rentals in Grenoble as well as bank assets. All of this was sold to establish a capital fund for maintenance. One might ask if the decision to spend the initial capital was a sound management move. When the proceeds from the auction will in turn have been spent, what else will have to be sold ?

[4] These pictures, according to Dominique Lemaistre, were taken before the 2006 closing.

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