When Gaugain and Bonnard sold for $100

When Gaugain and Bonnard sold for $100
One of the most sensational recoveries of art this year was in early April. Two stolen paintings by two leading post expressionists — Paul Gauguin and Pierre Bonnard — made headlines on April 2, 2014. The two paintings were stolen in 1970 from a private art collection in Britain and are believed to have ‘travelled on a Paris-to-Turin train’ before being found by railway personnel who deposited them at the ‘lost-and-found depot’. As is normally the practice for unclaimed items, the paintings were auctioned in one lot by the Italian Railway authorities in 1975. The auctioneers obviously had no idea about the importance of the paintings, which they sold to an Italian auto-worker for the equivalent of $100. The Gauguin painting is now estimated to be worth between ¤10 and ¤30 million and the Bonnard composition at a comparatively lower price.

During his career in art, Gauguin had made a number of still life studies. While they may not be as vibrant and colourful as his work done during his stay at Tahiti, they offer a glimpse into the artist’s style and can be seen as ‘a foundation to his later creations’. Pierre Bonnard is also known for his use of colour, ‘built with small brush marks and complex compositions of sunlit interiors of rooms and gardens’. Thus both the paintings that have so miraculously been found, are important artworks and true representations of the works of two important members of the post impressionist period.

Gauguin’s still-life of a dining table with fruit was obviously considered as suitable as ‘dining room décor’ and remained for 40 years on the purchaser’s kitchen walls first in Turin and after retirement in Sicily. Interestingly, it was the man’s son who had studied architecture at university who noticed the dog in painting and recognised it as one of Gauguin’s ‘signature motifs’. He contacted an art expert for evaluation of the painting who then alerted the paramilitary carabinieri art theft division. The painting titled Fruit on a Table with a Small Dog depicts a circular dining table draped with a white table cloth, on which rest two bowls full of fruit. Dated ‘89’(1889) and dedicated to ‘Countess N’, the painting is said to have been cut out from its frame and measures 46.5 by 53 centimeters (about 18 by 20 inches), making it slightly smaller than when it was created by Gauguin. It is pertinent to note that Gauguin had also created another still life with dogs – Still Life with Three Puppies.

With the help of newspaper articles the Italian art squad were able to establish that the paintings were stolen from a ‘wealthy London family’s art collection’. They also discovered a photograph that confirmed that the painting was part of a London auction on June 28, 1961. London’s Scotland Yard has so far not been able to trace records of the theft and till an official notice is made by them, both the paintings will remain with the Italian art squad.

(The writer is an author and a former art gallery owner)

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