Friday, July 8, 2011

EXCLUSIVE — More on the Monet rejected by the Wildenstein Institute

Following the BBC's investigation into the authenticity of a Claude Monet painting owned by British collector David Joel (which I reported here), more evidence has emerged which endorses the growing consensus that the Wildenstein Institute can no longer be trusted to fulfill its role as the exclusive and official authenticator of Monet's paintings.

Briefly summarised, the BBC documentary entitled Fake or Fortune succeeded in establishing a watertight provenance and an unequivocal attribution for Mr Joel's Monet landscape — Les bords de la Seine à Argentueil (shown above left). The producers of the programme deftly disguised the fact that most of the research leads had been provided by David Joel himself, but I'll come back to that later.

Although the documentary was made last year, it has only just been broadcast. However, shortly after it was completed, the renowned art historian and Impressionist scholar John House, who had contributed to the programme, retired from his long-held post at London's Courtauld Institute of Art. While clearing out his office, Professor House stumbled upon a forgotten Monet obituary dated 1926 from Le Figaro Artistique. The obituary was illustrated with seven of Monet's paintings, including the landscape Les bords de la Seine à Argentueil owned by David Joel.

One of Monet's closest friends was the former French Prime Minister Georges Clémenceau (1841-1929), who was present at the artist's death in December 1926, holding his hand and offering reassurance. The image (right) shows the two men on the bridge in Monet's garden at Giverny.

Indeed it was Clémenceau who persuaded Monet to dedicate his epic water lilies project to the French state to celebrate the Armistice of November 1918. As a result, two of the largest water lily paintings are now housed in the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris.

First of all, it is inconceivable that Clémenceau, who had an intimate knowledge of Monet's work, would not have noticed if one of the illustrated paintings in the obituary was a fake. Had that painting been 'wrong' in any way shape or form, it could not have found its way into an authoritative obituary in Le Figaro Artistique without Monet's closest friends and associates noticing and drawing attention to it.

Furthermore, if the Wildenstein Institute is the panoptic and all-encompassing archive it purports to be, then a copy of the Le Figaro Artistique obituary would surely be included in its Monet files.

Why, then, did Daniel Wildenstein consistently reject the painting as not an autograph work by Monet? One explanation is that by dismissing it, the Wildensteins hoped the painting would then find its way onto the market as a lowly copy or rejected work, at which point they would be able to acquire it themselves at a knock-down price, "do the research" on it and conveniently change their mind. Such practices are by no means unusual in the art world.

Knowing that the late Daniel Wildenstein had consistently rejected the picture, Guy Wildenstein could not go back on his father's word for fear of undermining the family's fabled authority in such matters. It is also highly likely that Daniel Wildenstein never actually saw the painting in the flesh.

The picture's original owner, the Francophile Egyptian collector Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Bek (1877-1953) (right), acquired it from the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris (the painting still bears Petit's serrated stock label) and promptly took it back to Cairo where it entered his growing collection of French modernist masterpieces.

When Nasser overthrew the Egyptian monarchy and seized power in 1952, Kahlil fled to Paris. Shortly after arriving, he died of a heart attack, leaving his wife, the French-born Emiline Hector Luce, in straitened financial circumstances. She immediately looked to liquidate her few assets, one of which was the Monet that her husband had brought with him on fleeing Cairo (it had always been one of his favourite paintings). Madame Luce sold the picture to the Galerie André Maurice in Paris, who shortly afterwards sold it to Dudley Tooth during one of the London dealer's frequent buying sprees in the French capital. Tooth brought it back to London, had it restored, and sold it to the concert pianist Sir Clifford Curzon. Thus there were few opportunities for Daniel Wildenstein to have seen the painting.

David Joel has written a book on Monet at Véthueil, as well as a catalogue raisonné of British 18th-century marine painter Charles Brooking. But will his Monet ever be recognised as the real thing? Not while the Wildenstein Institute are guarding the lily pond.

In the light of the new evidence that has emerged, the BBC should revisit this issue and put a little more effort into exposing the compromised Wildenstein Institute.

The image of Monet's Les bords de la Seine à Argentueil illustrated above is reproduced by kind permission of David Joel. Image copyright David Joel


H Niyazi said...

Thank you for this post. The BBC did underplay Mr Joel's credentials, likely to promote a sympathetic response from viewers, but I think your description of them presenting him a 'naif' is somewhat overblown (in the opposite direction). The program included references to David Joels 'own research', a process spanning some (now) 19 years, and numerous correspondence with the Wildensteins and many other experts in the field. Joel even quotes American expert Professor Paul Hayes Tucker in the last scene after the Wildenstein news is delivered by House.

That Joel needed assistance was part of the reality of the art market and the attribution game. Having a larger group of established Monet scholars agree it is by that artist will invariably strengthen his case. In the Cairo scene, when the telling Petit catalogue number was uncovered by Mould (establishing the Joel's picture being catalogued during Monet's lifetime), Joel also admitted he had many Petit numbers, but not that crucial one. This one statement alone shows him to be far from a 'naif', but still benefitting from the assistance of Mould, Grosvenor, House et al.

Bruce's becoming quite fond of the Joels probably added to this 'naif' perception you describe, but the listing of who did the 'specialist research' in the credits is telling:

A screengrab for verification, with BBC describing Joel as a specialist consultant along with Dr. Grosvenor:

The onus is with the art market to adjust to the traditional authority granted to the Wildensteins. With the current legal strife Wildenstein is in, this will hopefully give the market the impetus to review their processes to be based on strength of evidence and independent assessment. I wouldn't hold my breath though.

Kind Regards
H Niyazi

Tom Flynn said...

Thanks for that corrective. I was here recording my personal impressions of how the BBC presented Mr Joel. Perhaps celebrity presenters like Fiona Bruce can't help adopting that slightly patronizing tone when dealing with members of the public, but it is deeply irritating. Nevertheless I stand corrected on the Beeb's acknowledgment of his Monet expertise.

In any event, the real culprit here is the stubborn Wildenstein Institute which is increasingly looking like a dinosaur from a vanished world. You're probably right that if anything is likely to change the game it will be the outcome of the various investigations the Wildensteins face regarding their allegedly unauthorised appropriation of private collections entrusted to them.

I like your Three Pipe Problem blog.
All best
Tom said...

Hello,have you read what Waldemar Januszack has written in the Guardian on this?? Is he on the payroll of the Institute,one cannot help but wonder...will you get to the bottom of this,because he also works for the BBC;it is vital that these sort of connaisseur people should be banned from airing their views as if it were the holy script itself! WB Blok,Netherlands

Anonymous said...

This has all the elements of a blood feud that has been carried forward by Guy Wildenstein on behalf of his deceased father.Perhaps a more interesting story might be found in investigating the relationship between the Wildensteins and Khalil Bek. The lack of an offer of recognition may well lie in a failure by one of the Wildensteins to procure additional Monets whilst Khalil Bek was on his buying spree. This buying spree coincided with a global economic downturn that savaged the art world (and likely the Wildenstein's buying leverage) and could have resulted in some extremely bad feelings that go far beyond whether a painting is authentic or not.

Let's just call this an educated hunch based on how the art world really works. It's hard to serendipitously remove the rag-pickers and horse traders out of the usual art dealing family gene pool, try as one might.

Anonymous said...

There is just the possibility that everything about the artwork may be right, except the picture itself. Let's say the canvas was somehow damaged beyond repair and the owner sells the remains for a song. The new owner has a copy made (and there were plenty of good fakers then, as now). The frame and stamps are right, except that the replaced painting isn't. Too far-fetched?

Manny Tacbobo said...

Thank you so much for making this series of posts. I'm learning so much!! Painters London

Sofia said...

I have just watched the documentary. I can’t understand a few things. It was been proven that the painting had existed in Monet’s time (there is a picture of the panting in Cairo).

Now it’s a question whether this particular artwork is a real thing or a fake one. It will be fair if Wildenstein Institute will provide with solid evidences that this painting is fake one and not just reject without any proof.

Sofia said...

I have just watched the documentary. I can’t understand a few things. It was been proven that the painting had existed in Monet’s time (there is a picture of the panting in Cairo).

Now it’s a question whether this particular artwork is a real thing or a fake one. It will be fair if Wildenstein Institute will provide with solid evidences that this painting is fake one and not just reject without any proof.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't trust wildenstein institute

Anonymous said...

The characters of all of the Wildensteins right up to today are up against the most compelling thing that mankind has at his disposal for examining ANY claim about the world: Science. At some point the burden of proof shifts. And in this case, unless the Wildensteins can come up with a reason that even one part of the evidence should deny the painting in question the status, then it must be assumed that it is the general article.
There are too many dollars (n euros n pounds) on the table to allow one agency (any agency) such authority. This has far reaching implications, and rightfully so.

Kaye Hawk said...

I just saw the episode involving David Joel and I agree the presentation failed to properly credit much of the research to Mr Joel himself. A brief notation at the end does nothing to indicate the extent of his knowledge or efforts. But putting aside the vagaries of reality TV, for once a widely broadcast programme shows the inertia of an institute that is the product of the family of just another art dealer. The sadness and frustration lies in the auction houses who have given the Wildensteins the sole power to declare authenticity and in doing so have generated the opposite effect. The art world seems to turn Monet works over to one family as though they were painted by the Wildensteins themselves with no thought to the inevitable conceit it can create. Apparently, ease and efficiency has supplanted extensive scholarship.

Dan Hooker said...

Excellent job on the research..well done. I am convinced. I was on the Tele with a De Kooning that passed the tests..then declined by the "Ultimate Expert" Whom they said they wouldn't use but did anyway, who liked the work till paid then changed his mind without refund. I am even more convinced now that it is genuine. We both have beautiful Artworks! Dan Hooker

karyn said...

I must have been watching another program as I assumed someone dedicating 18 , 19 20 yrs of time on one subject is likely to a be a conocour of said subject and have at least wtitten one book if not 2 on the subject. I also didn't find Fiona Bruce patronizing she said that she was becoming very fond of David and his wife which as an Australian I can relate to as any under dog will usally have an Australian behind them backing them up. Which brings up the wildenstines any private institution that has that much clout that they can go against what a court of law would call proof . Is very worring indeed. If it is then sold at a price that is below its worth is grave injustice indeed.