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Portrait of a Killing
Chapter 2 : What Happened to Cleveland Can Happen to You
On June 14, 1985, Pierre Rosenberg appeared at Christie's offices at 8 King Street in the St. James district of London, passed the upper-class girls in sweaters and bows in the Front Hall, and mounted the huge front staircase toward the office of Gregory Martin, director of the Department of Old Masters.
He'd expected the Louvre to raise questions about the Murillo sale, even before Rosenberg called from Paris. But Martin wasn't worried. He had taken counsel before putting the Murillo on the market, and he too was sure of his rights.
The meeting unrolled with surreal cordiality. Rosenberg politely downplayed the menace of his mission, in the excellent English he had learned as a graduate student at Yale in the early 1960s. "I'm here on vacation," he noted. Nothing in his manner suggested a threat. Instead he dealt with Martin as one connaisseur to another. First they looked at the Murillo, which was on exhibit for the sale, and admired it together.
Only then did Rosenberg show Martin his documents on the Murillo. "As you can see," said Rosenberg, "in 1975, the picture was in Paris. It left the country without an export permit. We would like you to take it out of your sale, and return it to Paris."
Martin said blandly that his company's lawyer in Paris would be in touch with Rosenberg. In the meanwhile, he would notify the Murillo's owner of the Louvre's complaint. He added, "She's a very difficult person."
The meeting ended as it began, in a scrupulous courtesy.
Neither man had understood the other.
Martin seemed not to realize that he had been given an order. He remained confident that "a solution can be found so the picture can figure in the sale on July 5," as he soothingly telexed the Murillo's owner later that day. After all, Rosenberg's demand was merely informal. It hadn't been committed to paper. And even if it had, Rosenberg's documents proved only that the Murillo had been in France in 1975. That was far too long ago for the Louvre to file smuggling charges, as Martin knew.
He was making a mistake, but it was natural on his part. As an Englishman, Martin was accustomed to think of the law as an instrument which protects individuals against the excesses of the State and its institutions.
But Rosenberg came from a culture in which what the law says matters far less in a given case than where the power is. In Paris it is understood that the State's interests sometimes require its loyal servants to commit illegal acts; this is familiarly called "officious" business. Any records of officious affairs must be doctored, destroyed or, better yet, never created, because they reveal that the State bends and breaks its own laws. In that light, Rosenberg's refusal to write out the Louvre's commands was a grave, unspoken warning: It signalled a readiness to use extra-legal means to get the Murillo back. No laws could protect Christie's now.
There is no record or recollection that when Martin called his lawyer in Paris, he mentioned the documents in Rosenberg's possession. Christie's lawyer, Bernard Duminy, would have known exactly what they meant. But for the moment he agreed that there was no reason to take the Murillo out of the sale. A long career had shown him the futility of panic. He cultivated calmness like a gardener tending his roses. He had trained his rectangular face and quiet voice to carry no expression; only rarely did a flash of emotion escape his oddly feminine, dark eyes.
Still, Duminy immediately arranged a meeting with Rosenberg in Paris on June 18. He figured that would be the end of this affair, which would, of course, be resolved to Christie's advantage.
Yet a phrase flashed through Duminy's consciousness, a peculiar little art world proverb: Look what happened to Cleveland. It summed up everything that could go wrong in dealing with the Louvre, and it told a story that was still fresh - and bleeding - in the art world's collective mind.
What happened to Cleveland began in 1980, when Sherman Lee, the widely respected, scholarly Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), was asked by a Parisian if he wished to buy her Poussin, "The Madonna on the Steps." Nicolas Poussin marks the point in the 17th century where French painters absorbed the Italian tradition and infused it with a new allegorical and philosophical content, and a Poussin of virtually any size and quality is considered an important picture. There was another version of this one in an American museum, but no one could say for certain which was the original, and which was a copy, made either by Poussin himself or by one of his assistants or followers.
Rosenberg, the Louvre's leading specialist on the artist, dropped hints the painting might be a fake. He also refused to say whether or not he'd allow it to leave France. Finally Lee turned down the offer. But soon after, the owner's nephew took the picture out of its frame, rolled it up, put it under his arm and smuggled it out of France on a jet bound for New York. There he declared it to American Customs, caught a flight to Cleveland, and telephoned Lee.
Lee's first act when the Poussin came to Cleveland became famous as a true curator's gesture: He spread it flat, praying its fool owner hadn't damaged the fragile bond of old paint to canvas. (Luckily, the picture was intact.) Then Lee and his staff examined it in their laboratory, and concluded that contrary to what Landais and Rosenberg said, it was no fake. If only Cleveland could buy it without violating French law....
And then, it seemed that the Americans could do just that.
Lee's lawyers believed that the Poussin fell through a crack in the Law of June 23, 1941. There were documents to prove it had first exited, then re-entered France after 1900, which meant it could not be denied an export permit, if one were ever requested. Lee considered their opinion, then called Landais, whom he considered a close friend; when Lee came to Paris, he was a guest in Landais's home.
Lee told him: "I'm buying the Poussin."
"Sherman, don't do it!" cried Landais. "Bring it back to Paris!" He swore that they could work things out.
But on two previous occasions, Landais had maneuvered Lee into abandoning French pictures whose export credentials were dubious. One of those pictures ended up in a French museum. The other, even more galling, went to another American museum after Landais warned Lee away from it.
Lee said to Landais now, in an ironic reference to those incidents, "If I don't buy it, someone else will."
"If they do," Landais retorted, "the same thing will happen to them that's going to happen to you. If you buy that picture, it's war."
"Alas, Hubert," said Lee, "then it's war."
"Fine," sighed Landais. And he recited a French proverb: "I'll bring you oranges in jail."
Their quarrel quickly became the art world's number one subject. Cleveland's acquisition (at a price estimated around $2 million) and the Louvre's protest were reported in Le Monde, the French newspaper of record, and by the major press agencies. Several months later, a detailed story in ARTnews laid out the background of the fight, stressing the audacity of Cleveland's acquisition. But museum directors and art traders were betting that Landais would soon cave in. Such conflicts were typical in the museum world, and the damage was rarely permanent. Curators who tricked each other out of acquisitions usually just stayed friends and got even in the same way. Besides, most observers who knew both men believed that Landais was really as weak and plodding as he often pretended to be. "Oh, I knew what they were thinking," Landais recalled.
He let them think what they liked, and set about turning Lee's life into a permanent humiliation. First, Rosenberg and Laclotte fired a warning shot across Lee's bow in November 1981, in a letter to The Burlington magazine, an English journal read by everyone in the top levels of the art world. Certainly, they admitted, the Poussin had "entered the United State quite legally." But that was beside the point: "The fact remains that it was removed clandestinely from France.... There was nothing in French law which exempted it from the requirement of an export permit." Yet their only threat sounded deceptively soft: Unless "the elementary rules of professional ethics [are] respected," they concluded, "real collaboration between the officials of great museums would become impossible."
"I consider ethics a matter as much for us to determine as for them," retorted Lee to reporters.
He overlooked the steel in their sheath of politeness. They meant that if Cleveland didn't surrender, they'd turn it into the Irak of the museum world, an embargoed outlaw.
Cleveland didn't surrender, and the Louvre went to war. Landais personally telephoned major museum directors around the globe and informed them that until the Poussin returned to Paris, any museum exchanging artworks with the CMA could forget about working with the French. That wasn't much of a choice, for curators planning major exhibits. Since the 1970s, big exhibits had become cooperative enterprises, involving artworks from dozens of museums. Cleveland's small permanent collection meant that it didn't have an awful lot to exchange, while there were 32 giant collections in Landais's National Museums, comprising some four million objects. Just as important, there were over 1000 other French museums whose curators were approved by the Direction of the Museums of France. No curator who valued his or her career would dare violate Landais's orders, especially in a case where the patrimony was at stake.
The most popular museum shows of all, the blockbuster exhibits of French Impressionists, could hardly be assembled without Landais's consent. And without such blockbuster shows, museum trustees in the United States, whose steep financial contributions were supposed to pay off in social prestige, grew angry with their curators and directors.
"To have damaged relations with [Landais]," whistled Getty Museum director Burton Fredricksen to ARTnews, without committing the faux pas of saying exactly what that might entail, "seems like a very high price to pay."
It took a few years for Landais's siege to take full effect, because exhibits are planned far in advance, but eventually Cleveland was strangled. A review of the CMA's annual reports shows that by 1986, its loans to Europe fell by two-thirds, and loans from Europe fell to near zero. The ban "had a real impact on our exhibition program," admitted Lee's successor, Evan Turner.
Then, incredibly, Landais put Sherman Lee under Gallic house arrest. In June 1984, following a complaint filed by the National Museums, a Paris magistrate indicted Lee on the charge of "complicity in a smuggling crime." The French Ministry of Justice immediately notified Interpol, the United Nations police organization, that Lee was wanted for arrest and extradition. The U.S. Department of State refused to arrest him, but Lee was nonetheless advised by his government not to plan any trips to France. He was thus banned from a country he loved, where he had many friends and business contacts besides Landais.
"They're trying to defame me," he raged to reporters. "It's a kind of blackmail operation."
Exactly - and highly effective. The Law of June 23, 1941 was now an object of respect, however forced, for every museum and dealer in the world. "Everyone knew," said the president of a major New York gallery, "that what happened to Cleveland could happen to them."
Bernard Duminy knew it, too. But it wouldn't happen over the Murillo, he thought. Not unless Landais was sure that appearances favored him; not unless he discovered proof the Murillo had been smuggled from France. And Gregory Martin had long since assured Duminy that such proof could not exist.
On the first Friday in May, Martin had come to Duminy's office near the Champs-Elysées. The place was a sunlit, cream-walled former bourgeois family apartment, divided into a seeming infinity of closed-off spaces that defined the frontier between masters and servants. Its sober, classic elegance would be evident to a connaisseur, but was concealed from the unknowing by a tired coat of paint. It was a setting that breathed prudence, but the business at hand was highly risky.
Martin made it plain to Duminy that they were talking about an important picture. Its owner, a woman named Joelle Pesnel, lived in Toulon - a Mediteranean port known to every educated Englishman as the site of one of Lord Nelson's great victories over Napoleon's fleet. She had never concealed from Christie's that her picture might lead to trouble with the Louvre.
She'd be an idiot to try. Her Murillo figured in the Spanish critic Diego Angulo Iñiguez's 1981 book, Murillo Catalogo Critico, the standard reference for the artist's work. Martin had checked the text, which red-flagged this portrait. Angulo Iñiguez claimed it had belonged to a certain Baron de Landesvoisin of Paris in the 1970's, and that the owner before him was a French collector named Causon.
Of course, Angulo Iñiguez's provenance proved nothing. He could make mistakes, like anyone else, and Martin believed he'd made a couple here. But Martin still had to assume that the Catalogo Critico would be consulted as a matter of routine at the Louvre when the impending sale of any Murillo was announced. Given the provenance, the inevitable next step would be to check on this picture's export permit. There was none, so Martin had to assume further that the Louvre would object to the sale.
However, Martin had good reason to think it highly unlikely that the Louvre, or anyone else, could prove that Angulo Iñiguez was right. For a start, the Murillo had left France more than three years ago, as the property of Pesnel's Swiss grandmother.
That meant no one could prosecute Pesnel for selling it in London. It wasn't her fault if her grandmother had broken the Law of June 23, 1941 at some point in the distant past. It was also highly unlikely that anyone could document a French owner after 1928, when "Causon" bought it. Finally, though Pesnel was French, her heritage was Swiss. And the French could no more obstruct the sale of a Swiss estate than they could conscript British punks into the Foreign Legion. The worst that could happen, according to Pesnel's lawyers, was that when she brought her profits home to France, Customs would ask where the money came from, and she'd have to prove the Murillo came from a Swiss estate.
But that was Pesnel's problem, not Christie's.
Martin pressed Duminy for an opinion: Were Pesnel's people right? Could the Murillo go in the sale on July 5? He was close to the wire now. The printing deadline for the sale catalogue was only a few weeks away.
Christie's could go ahead, said Duminy.
"I much appreciate that," wrote Martin to Duminy from London on May 8, in a letter detailing their conversation. He added in a postcript: "Madame Pesnel says that no Landesvoisin ever had anything to do with its ownership." The real provenance, he explained, "descended from her great aunt, Causon... through her half sister, Pesnel's grandmother." Pesnel then inherited the picture when her grandmother died in 1979.
For all his optimism, Martin had good reason to feel uneasy. He still had no evidence, except for Pesnel's word, that the Louvre would find no links between the Murillo and any French owners. Nor did he have proof that the Murillo had left France more than three years ago. One way or the other, he needed assurance that Christie's could guarantee the picture's "free title", an unencumbered right of ownership for any buyer.
If Landais discovered proof of the Murillo's French provenance, and brought pressure to bear on the buyer, the picture's free title would clearly be compromised, and Christie's might eventually have to take the picture back, a rare and very disagreeable event. "I've been around since 1971," commented a New York dealer, "and I've never known of a major picture that came up for sale, and had to be returned [by the buyer to other claimants] afterwards. Never." Christie's reputation, and with it their future access to important artworks, would surely be damaged; how much, no one could say. So the question of whether or not Landais could produce documentary evidence of the Murillo's French provenance was critical.
Magnifying the risk, Martin had already advanced $80,000 to Pesnel against the future proceeds of the sale. Duminy was appalled when he heard of it. "The woman lives in a hotel, for God's sake," he pointed out. There was never a guarantee that a picture would meet its reserve price at auction, nor that something else wouldn't go wrong. And then, fumed Duminy, Christie's would be owed a lot of money by "someone who has no permanent address."
But Duminy knew that his prudence seemed grotesquely old-fashioned. Owners had come to expect advances - a practice that Sotheby's flamboyant, brilliant director, Peter Wilson, had introduced to the art market in the 1960s, as a means of pulling clients away from Christie's. Until then, the only way to get cash in a hurry for a picture was to sell it to a dealer, because auctioneers do not have the legal right to buy artworks for themselves. Wilson's gambit was both legal and highly effective. The clients got fast cash, plus the chance of a higher price at auction than a dealer would pay for their property, and Sotheby's steadily built its market share. The practice could backfire, like one night in 1969 when the house reportedly lost a million dollars in advances, as a stock market crash took an Impressionist sale down with it. But Christie's too began handing out advances in the early 1980s, because they simply could not otherwise compete against Sotheby's for major collections. As their chairman Lord Carrington later told the French daily Le Monde, "Being prudent and conservative... isn't always a good thing."
The risk paid off. On May 22, only six weeks before the sale, Martin reported to Duminy: "The provenance given by Angulo is partially incorrect." One of his agents had visited the old, ailing art historian at his home in Spain, and managed to peek into his records. "According to Angulo's files," wrote Martin, "nothing proves that the picture ever belonged [to] the Baron de Landesvoisin[.]" He was just a courtier - a free-lance sales agent working on commission for the real owner.
The true provenance, corrected for spelling, read like this, wrote Martin:
de Canson, Paris, 1928.
Just before the catalogue went to press, however, Madame Pesnel decided to modify the provenance again. The spelling of "de Canson" was changed, at her order, to "de Cansou". Despite his own evidence to the contrary, Martin ceded the point. The name of a distant owner - Causon or Canson or Cansou, with or without the aristocratic particulate, "de" - was of secondary importance in this case.
It certainly didn't matter to the market. At the end of May, Martin began notifying collectors and dealers that the Murillo was coming to the block, and foresaw that bidding would surely shoot well past the £700,000 (about $1.05 million) that he'd declared as the picture's value to Her Majesty's Customs and Excise when it arrived in London from Switzerland. He happily wrote to Pesnel: "There is not a little interest in it."
It was a great moment to sell this Murillo. The previous generation of Old Masters collectors, conservative and fanatically discreet, was giving way to publicity-avid businessmen like clothesmaker Ralph Lauren, the junk-bond financier Saul Steinberg, and art brokers like Roberto Castro Polo, who developed an investment fund based on artworks. Competition between these new buyers and the traditional market base of dealers and museums was driving Old Master prices to record heights - even higher, so far, than for individual Impressionist pictures, the most inflated goods of the decade. "In the Seventies, $2 million got you an incredible picture," sighed one Old Masters dealer later. "In the Eighties, it only got you an important one."
Only weeks ago, on April 19, Christie's and Martin had shattered an epochal psychological barrier, when "The Adoration of the Magi," by the 15th-century Paduan master Andrea Mantegna, was auctioned in London for $10,400,000 to the Getty museum. It was the first eight-figure (in dollars) picture sale in history. And the frenzy was still building. Only on May 27, Martin had auctioned a portrait by the French master Jacques-Louis David at a record price for the artist. The sale confirmed a "revival of interest in British and European portraits" reported by Geraldine Norman, generally considered the best journalist covering the auction trade, in the London Times.
News that the Murillo was coming to market spread fast and deep. "It was a prize," laughed a prominent Old Masters dealer later. "Everyone wanted that picture. I wanted it badly. I could've sold it to an American museum in a second." (Museums usually buy from dealers, after an auction, because it is difficult to get their trustees' approval and contributions toward the purchase beforehand.) It was, swooned the dealer, "a spectacular, beautiful picture, in excellent condition."
Of course dealers had noticed the picture's French provenance. But even the possibility of a challenge from Landais had failed to cool the market's desire. As one dealer said: "I figured that if Christie's could solve the problem, I could." And Martin, it seemed, had brilliantly solved it.
When he set out for the Louvre on June 18, Duminy was defending not just one picture, but this fabulous momentum, and the possibility of similar scores in the future.
He still had no idea what awaited him.
Duminy entered the Louvre's southern facade, parallel to the Seine, by a port called the Lion's Gate. It is flanked by two enormous, roaring bronze felines, symbols of a bygone royal power, and of the ferocious pride at the heart of the Louvre. He gave his name to the guard and mounted two flights of stairs to Rosenberg's office.
Rosenberg was waiting for him with Michel Laclotte. It was a sign, if Duminy cared to read it, that Martin had misread something in the situation. This was no "informal" matter. The Louvre's hierarchy was fully engaged in the affair.
The curators showed Duminy the receipt that the Baron de Landesvoisin had signed at the Louvre's laboratory in 1975. Duminy barely mastered his stupefaction.
Why hadn't Martin warned him that the Murillo had left a paper trail inside the Louvre? Why had Pesnel told them that Landesvoisin had nothing to do with this picture?
He could still hope - and a dismal hope it was - that the Louvre had merely mistaken the piece at Christie's for another Murillo. But the curators showed him the lab report on the "Portrait of a Gentleman," and waited while he read every line. Magdeleine Hours had done her work well: She had X-rayed the picture, and photographed it under low-angled, ultra-violet, and infra-red lights. She'd practically fingerprinted its model.
Finally, Rosenberg said, "I saw the picture myself."
"So did I," said Laclotte.
They were making this a personal affair, a matter of honor and face. It was like Cleveland, only worse.
Duminy returned to his office and telephoned Gregory Martin. "They want you to bring the Murillo back to Paris, right?" said Duminy. "Well, bring it back!"
Martin did not like the idea.
"Listen," said the lawyer, "we are in touch with those people every day, asking for export permits. We cannot afford to have bad relations with them."
Didn't Martin realize what was at stake? A catastrophe awaited them, if they didn't give Landais what he wanted.
First of all, the Murillo was no longer worth selling, because Landais could boycott any museum that dared to buy it, just as he had done to Cleveland. If no museums wanted the picture, no dealers who sold to museums would want it, either. In short, its auction value had been reduced to a fraction of its worth.
And that would be minor damage, compared to what came next. The Law of June 23, 1941 offered Hubert Landais every weapon he might need to bleed Christie's white, without ever taking them to court.
Landais could start by systematically hauling every last piece Christie's wanted to export from France out of the Customs warehouse at the République, and move them into his museums for the six months of "study" authorized by the law. In the meanwhile, Christie's sale schedule would fall apart. And though six months was the legal limit, the Louvre's curators not infrequently surpassed it. There was a Parisian dealer who had waited two years for the museums to finish studying one of his pictures.
Or Landais could simply deny Christie's any more export permits, without giving any reason. After all, the law didn't oblige him to.
Worst of all, he could apply for national monument status for any important work Christie's hoped to sell, which would nail it to French soil permanently. Once word of the vendetta got around (and they could count on Landais to spread it), no French owners of an Impressionist or an Old Master - not to mention Louis XV armoires, Sèvres porcelain, Art Nouveau sculptures - would dare to approach Christie's.
The company would be severely handicapped, if not crippled, because French-made objects accounted, in any given year, for about 30 percent of the auction business. And France, despite the massive heritages in old English houses, was still the best source for them. It would be like an oil company losing its drilling rights in Saudi Arabia.
Of course nothing in the Law of June 23, 1941 specifically gave Landais the right to wreck Christie's. He was supposed to consider objects awaiting export strictly on a case-by-case basis, according to their esthetic or historic value. But all Christie's could do in their defense would be to file suit after suit for "abuse of power" with the French Administrative Tribunal, one artwork at a time, and wait two years or more for a judgement in each case - assuming the Louvre didn't appeal, which it surely would. And there was no certainty Christie's would win those cases, either.
That same day, Duminy sent Martin and Pesnel's lawyers a letter whose precise, explicit bluntness, quite out of character for a French gentleman, was like a scream of disgust. It went without saying that the Murillo must return to France, he told them, and that would be just the beginning. Certainly, Pesnel could still apply for an export licence for her picture. However, Duminy noted acidly, "on such occasions the National Museums have the possibility of exercising a right of pre-emption." The Louvre could buy her picture out of Customs. They might also name it a national monument, and keep it off the world market. Or Customs might simply seize it, pending further legal action.
In any of these cases, Christie's might never recuperate its $80,000 advance. But Duminy did not spell that out.
Instead he suggested a third solution: They might negotiate "a friendly acquisition by the Louvre." The Louvre would get its Murillo, and Pesnel would get some money. Christie's would get back its advance. And there would be no further threat to its business in France.
That was the best option, and from Duminy's standpoint, it was something like a milk cow bargaining for her life with a farmer who loves beef.