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A French Mystery: The Story of a Painting and Its Path to Auction

We first saw the French School landscape painting on a walk-thru at a client’s apartment in New York City where it hung in the front hall for as long as anyone could remember. What no one could tell us was where the painting had come from and who the artist was. The painting is finely, if somewhat lightly, painted in a pleasing palette that evokes the colors of France and the landscape of Brittany, or perhaps Le Midi. It is signed indistinctly with initials that are not clearly legible and dated ‘87’ or ‘89’ lower right. On the back of the frame was a partial paper label from an exhibition of works by Paul Gauguin held at the Kunsthalle Basel in 1928. We were intrigued and asked the family if we could do some research into the painting with the hope that the exhibition label would lead us to answers about who painted this work and what its provenance is.


Part I: Researching the 1928 Exhibition.

Photographs of the label were enlarged and it appeared to us that the exhibition number on the label could be ‘60’. Through the Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art we obtained a copy of the original 1928 exhibition catalogue printed by the Kunsthalle Basel. None of the entries seemed to match our painting. We were looking for a landscape from 1887-89 and signed with initials lower right. As the exhibition catalogue was sparsely illustrated, we had to rely on a match of these identifiers to possibly confirm our painting’s inclusion in the Gauguin exhibition. And if it had been in the exhibition, was it by the great French Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin, or was it by another artist painting alongside Gauguin in the 1880s? We contacted the archives at the Kunsthalle Basel who were equally intrigued by the exhibition label. Their head archivist told us that the exhibition had included only works by Gauguin himself and that the archival material for the exhibition was housed off-site. They kindly offered to look into the files they had at hand and were excited to tell us that they thought the label revealed the  exhibition number 60 in their copy of the 1928 catalogue. The painting exhibited with the number 60, however, was signed ‘P. Gauguin’, not with  initials. The archivist told us that the lender’s name on the label was clearly Dr. Gustav Schweitzer, Berlin, a German private art dealer who had sold other Gauguin paintings prior to the outbreak of WWII. Interestingly, we did find another painting lent by Dr. Schweitzer in the exhibition catalogue, no. 6, titled Herrenbildnis (Portrait of a Man), from 1880. Even without an attribution for our Landscape, we decided to dig deeper.


Part II: The Art Loss Register

When handling works of art that have no documented provenance and were potentially in Europe during WWII, we often consult with The Art Loss Register. The ALR is the world’s largest private database of lost and stolen art, offering a registration service to deter art theft, and operates a due diligence service to sellers and a recovery service to return works of art to their rightful owners. We consult the ARL in their due diligence capacity to learn whether a work of art had ever been listed with them as lost or stolen, and whether they can offer us any additional information. We decided to consult them about our mystery painting. One of their art historians was as intrigued as we were and spent a great deal of time researching this work for us. Through her we learned that Dr. Schweitzer, the lender to the Gauguin exhibition in 1928,  had run his private art business from his home in Berlin until around 1940 when he was deported to a concentration camp where he eventually died. There are no records of what happened to his business after 1940. Research into Dr. Schweitzer’s collection found similar works in his collection in the late 1930s, including a Paul Cezanne watercolor titled La Montagne Sainte-Victoire which caught our eye as it was also with Justin K. Thannhauser prior to being with Dr. Schweitzer. The Thannhauser name is of interest because at some point in our painting’s history someone added Thannhauser Gallery, Munich, exhibited 1928, no. 43 to the possible exhibition history. The Thannhauser Gallery, Munich lent three landscape  paintings to the 1928 Kunsthalle Gauguin show. We also learned that Dr. Schweitzer knew a member of the family who owned our painting and had possibly had business dealings with him. Both were German Jews and active in the arts community in Dresden and Berlin.


Part III: Provenance

Provenance as it pertains to works of art and antiquities is a record of ownership that can be used to help authenticate a work and confirm its quality and importance. Our painting had been in the same family since the 1940s, but there was no known provenance. It was part of a collection of art and objects acquired over decades by the patriarch of the family, though some of the works were inherited from his family, most of the works had some documentation to consult. The family has roots in Dresden, Germany where they were respected members of the elite and known collectors of porcelain.


Part IV: Expertise and the Gauguin Committee

Having reached the end of the research road, at least as far as we could go on our own, we made the decision to submit the painting to the Wildenstein Platner Institute for review. The WPI is in the process of putting together an additional volume to the catalogue raisonné of the works of Paul Gauguin and their committee reviews works for possible inclusion in the new volume. In general, catalogue raisonné committees do not authenticate works, but inclusion in a forthcoming catalogue serves the same purpose. With the consignor’s consent, we submitted an application for review along with photos and all the information we had gathered during the course of our research. The administrator for the committee reviews application and then assigns a viewing venue, either New York or Paris depending on which experts will be involved. We waited. And hoped. It would be so exciting to have discovered a long-lost Gauguin painting! If it wasn’t painted by Gauguin, why did it have the exhibition label on the frame? Could the frame have belonged to a different painting by Gauguin at some point? Was our painting sold to the family in Dresden, or was it given to the family as collateral during the war? We had so many questions, but the main question, did Gauguin paint this work, was going to be answered by the WPI.


Part V: The End of the Story, peut-etre

We received an email from the Wildenstein Platner Institute informing us that they had made their determination that the painting was not by the hand of Paul Gauguin. They were able to come to this conclusion from the photographs and would not need to see the painting in person. A letter to this affect arrived in the mail a few days later. Such disappointment, but we were not surprised. Gauguin is a very well-documented artist and the possibility of an unknown painting surfacing was slim. But the question remains: who painted this French landscape? Whose indistinct initials were signed to this painting? And how did this painting find its way into a frame with the Gauguin exhibition label on it? The mystery continues!

Stair will offer this painting on September 10 in our 1500 to 1900: European and American Fine Art sale.

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