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Portrait of a Killing
A true Paris story of power, art and crime 

Originally published as "Le Destin de Suzanne: La véritable affaire Canson". 
Paris: Fayard, 1995. 

 



The players in this true, case-cracking tale include former Minister of Culture Jack Lang, former President of the Louvre Pierre Rosenberg, the auction house Christie's, plus a barmaid from the Côte d'Azur with a penchant for locking people up, an heiress who trusts the wrong people, and an investigating magistrate who risks his career to solve a blood crime.  Supported by thousands of pages of documentation and hundreds of hours of interviews, hailed by the French and English press as "exemplary" and a "model of the nonfiction novel", the first part -- a self-contained novella -- is available here in English for the first time. 


Chapter One: Rosenberg's Eye


One day late in May, 1985,  Pierre Rosenberg leafed through the catalogue for an upcoming auction of "Important Old Masters Paintings" in his office at the Louvre museum.  It had been nearly two decades since he entered the Louvre, and now, at the age of 46, he was its Assistant Chief Curator of Paintings.  Someday, if his fate stayed true to its promise, he would become the President of the museum, ruler of a palace that initiates still called "the House of the King."  From his office he could watch that future taking a bold new shape, in the courtyard where heavy machines were at work, preparing the ground for a giant glass pyramid that would be the entrance to the museum.

The slight, wire-haired curator gave his attention to the chore at hand. He knew from experience that it could have amazing results.

Early in his career, while reading a Paris auctioneer's catalogue, he had spotted a long-lost picture by the great 17th-century French master Nicolas Poussin, mislabelled as an anonymous "crust." That had been the beginning of Rosenberg's legend. Nothing counts more in the art world than having an eye - the ability to read an artwork as though it were a letter from an old friend, full of traits and expressions you know by heart; and ever since he discovered that Poussin, and snapped it up at auction for the Louvre at a mere $400, his small, clear, very bright blue eyes had been considered among the best in the Museums of France.

Rosenberg hardly expected a happy surprise like that today. The catalogue in his hands came from Christie's of London - by its full name, Christie, Manson & Woods Limited.  Founded in 1766, it was the oldest and second-biggest auction company in the world, after Sotheby Parke Bernet. And Christie's didn't let Old Masters slip through their hands carelessly.

When he got to page 151, he stopped, astonished, and stared at a four-color reproduction of a painting. He knew this picture, and what he knew meant trouble for the Louvre.

"Portrait of a Gentleman," Christie's called it, "standing full-length, wearing a black and white striped shirt, black doublet and breeches, and a sword, holding gloves and a beaver hat, on a terrace." It measured nearly seven feet high and five feet wide. Its maker was Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, the 17th-century Sevillian master, famed and imitated for the shadowy tenebrismo that infiltrated his pictures of street urchins and grandees alike, a subtle hint of death in life.

There were few head-to-toe portraits by Murillo, and the Louvre owned not one - a gap that had long grated on Rosenberg. No doubt about it, he'd handled this one ten years ago, right here in Paris. And unless his eye and memory were failing him - which was unthinkable - its owner was French.

And now it was in London, awaiting auction. But Rosenberg had never signed an export permit for it. Nor had he authorized anyone else to sign one.

Which could mean only one thing: This picture had been smuggled out of France.

Before a painting, or any other object that might have "a national historical or artistic value" was allowed to leave France, its owner was bound, under the "Law of June 23, 1941," to apply for an export permit, which must then be signed by a representative of the National Museums.  Rosenberg had made that law his personal affair. Every Wednesday he wound his trademark scarlet woolen scarf around the collar of his dark pinstriped suit, and marched off to the Customs warehouse near the Place de la République, where hundreds of pictures and their anxious owners and agents awaited him. "You have to look at everything," he once said, "because you never know." Never know, that is, what he might want for the Louvre.

The law granted him considerable power over those objects and their owners. If there was something he'd like to see hanging in one of the National Museums, he had the the right to buy the piece at its declared export value. For tax reasons, owners often declared a figure far lower than the real market value, and thereby "put themselves in our hands," said Rosenberg one day with diffident finality. Or he might see an object he considered so essential, so irreplaceable, that it had to be declared a national historical monument, and forbidden ever to leave France.

A choking rage filled him as he looked at the Murillo. "Every time an artwork leaves France," he later said, "it's an impoverishment of the nation. The wealth of a country - its real wealth - lies in its works of art." He didn't mean monetary value, but the "higher virtues", of beauty, order, and thought, that only art could express. He pounded on his desk with both hands as he spoke, oblivious to his visitor: "And I will do everything I can do! Always! -- so that these works stay in France."

The sale date in London was July 5, less than four weeks away. He hurried down the corridor to find his immediate superior, the General Inspector and Chief Curator of Paintings, Michel Laclotte.

It took Laclotte, a short, stocky, balding man nearing his sixties, who came off as deceptively timid and shaky in public, only moments to confirm Rosenberg's suspicions. Laclotte had kept a file on this exact picture in his office, ever since the Department of Paintings dreamed of buying it for a Murillo show, several years ago

Passing their fury between them, they went down the stairs to the corner of the palace to see their friend, mentor and chief, Hubert Landais, the Director of the Museums of France.


In Hubert Landais's immense office underneath the Louvre's skylit Grand Gallery, darkness laid a genteel patina on the dinginess of the State's back rooms. "The only decorating I ever did in that place," Landais liked to say, "was wash the walls." Landais didn't need to surround himself with priceless paintings, sculptures or tapestries; it was enough for him to be the boss in the House of the King. "I went around the world with a Louvre sticker on my forehead," he joked one day after he retired, "and everyone knew who I was."

Tall, slender, with handsomely sharp features and dark eyes, he had started at the Louvre in 1946, and climbed slowly, steadily up. It was a house tradition that sub-directors of the National Museums never claimed the Director's title, but he broke it in 1977. "I never applied for the job," he protested, but he ceaselessly trained for it. "I read every letter that came over the desks of three Directors in 15 years," he said with a knowing smile. Thus he became, he said, "the Louvre's walking memory," and an expert on the capitol's infinite webs and channels of influence.

He taught his lieutenants a cardinal rule: "Always know where the power is." Deliberately, cunningly, he concealed his own. He knew that his enemies called him plodding, scared, and stupid. "He's the last survivor of the Old Regime," said one, and another sneered: "Landais never made a courageous decision." He let them think so. It was no coincidence that the men who held him in contempt were the same ones Landais always defeated in a crisis. Landais liked to be underestimated. That was his edge.

Rosenberg and Laclotte entered his office and handed him the Christie's catalogue. The company was selling a smuggled Murillo, they told him.

A major artist and a smuggling crime sufficed to seize Landais's attention. He looked at the Murillo, then studied its provenance - the list of its previous owners, the path it travelled down the centuries, from its maker's hand to the present - to see if any were French. If they were, Christie's would have been obligated, as a matter of professional caution and ethics, to ask if the work had been legally exported from France. Certainly, as Landais knew from long experience, published provenances are hardly infallible; owners may keep their collections secret, or documents can be lost, leaving gaps in the timeline. But a documented provenance is a key proof of a piece's authenticity, and thus of its sale value. For a piece of this value - well over a million dollars, Landais could tell with a glance - Christie's would try to do a careful job.

The only owner listed by Christie's between 1928 and 1979 was a Frenchman named de Cansou. Then the picture appeared in Geneva, Switzerland, in the hands of one Jeanne Chappuis. The current owner had chosen to remain anonymous - the trade calls this privilege "client confidentiality" - and was identified only as "a lady."

Nothing in this provenance amounted to evidence of a crime. This "de Cansou" might very well have quietly sold the picture to a foreigner before the Law of June 23, 1941 was even decreed.

Landais asked: "Do you have proof that the picture was in France recently?" Frequently his curators identified smuggled works, but such proof was lacking, and no action could be taken against the smugglers.

Laclotte opened his file and took out a sheet of paper, typed over by a worn machine. It was a report on the Murillo, compiled in the Louvre's own laboratory, signed by the lab's former Chief Curator, Magdeleine Hours, and dated April 17, 1975.

The sight of that document was like a slap in Landais's face. There was only one way the Murillo could have entered the Louvre's lab: It must have been offered for sale to the National Museums. Only works under consideration for acquisition could be expertised by the Louvre's curators (otherwise, every dealer in Paris would be asking the Louvre to certify his or her wares). So someone had brought the picture to the Louvre, and then snatched it away and taken it abroad.

The next document in Laclotte's file confirmed beyond dispute that the fury of Landais and his men was proper and just - so far as they were concerned, anyway. A certain Baron de Landesvoisin had appeared at the laboratory after the Louvre turned down the Murillo (probably for budget reasons, as usual), and signed a standard receipt form, which certified that the picture "belongs to me." Landesvoisin was evidently French. A picture belonging to him was therefore part of the French national heritage - the patrimony, as Landais's people called it - and fell under the scope of the Law of June 23, 1941. There could be absolutely no question, in the absence of an export permit, that the Murillo had been smuggled out of France.

Years later, Landais still snarled at "the impudence of it." The fact that the Louvre hadn't bought the Murillo in 1975 didn't mean its owner and Christie's could do whatever they pleased with it. From his standpoint, morally speaking, Christie's was defenseless. They ought to know better than to put a picture like this on the market.

But legally speaking, Landais was weaponless, and all three men in the room knew it.

If he did what the law required of him now, the Murillo was as good as lost to France. As an officer of the State, he was obliged to immediately notify the Prosecutor of the Republic in Paris of any criminal acts that came to his attention. The Prosecutor, in turn, was statutorily obliged to inform the national Customs administration, if those crimes concerned the Customs Code. It would then be up to the Prosecutor and to Customs to dispose of the matter.

Unfortunately, neither Customs nor the Prosecutor could possibly resolve it to Landais's satisfaction. The time limit on initiating prosecution for Customs fraud - the crime defined by the Law of June 23, 1941 - is just three years from the moment it is committed. So even if someone had smuggled the Murillo into Switzerland in 1979, which was six years ago, the French authorities could ultimately do nothing.

Oh, they would investigate the matter, if Landais asked them to. Perhaps they might even persuade Christie's to delay selling the Murillo. But they couldn't prosecute anyone, and in the end they would tell Landais that they had no choice but to let the sale proceed. Before long, the Murillo would be hanging in an American museum, or over some parvenu foreign financier's Louis XV commode.

For the men in Landais's office, this was unjust and intolerable. They could not allow Christie's to think they could put smuggled pieces of the French patrimony on sale, anywhere and anytime they pleased. The notion was an insult to their station, their institution, and their heritage.

Far more important, it would also be a dangerous precedent. If Christie's succeeded in selling the Murillo, they would have smashed a wide breach in the Law of June 23, 1941, the Louvre's chief defense in the battle for France's artworks. Anyone who could smuggle a masterpiece out and wait three years would feel free to sell it in London or New York, at the market's top price. And the Louvre could not compete with every buyer in the world.

Swiftly, Landais reached a decision. He would handle this without Customs. He had no judicial recourse against Christie's, but no matter. "I was sure of my rights," he said later. And the Louvre's rights took precedence over legal technicalities.

"Call Christie's," he told his lieutenants. "Tell them to take the Murillo out of the sale. Tell them it's coming back to Paris."

They did not need to discuss what would happen if Christie's said no. The possibility never even occurred to them. Landais had plenty of extra-legal means, and this time he would use them to the full.

Christie's was about to learn where the power is.

Click here to read Chapter 2.


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