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Drouot’s Round Table: Can Religious Art Still Be Sold?

Published on , by Vincent Noce

Drouot is hosting a series of panel discussions on issues involving the art market. A precedent-setting decision was made public at the first round table, which focused on the government’s claims to Church property.

Limoges, incense burner on an enameled, engraved and gilded copper champlevé pedestal,... Drouot’s Round Table: Can Religious Art Still Be Sold?

Limoges, incense burner on an enameled, engraved and gilded copper champlevé pedestal, the plates c. 1230–1250, the foot and hinges from the third quarter of the 19th century, 5.4 x 18.1 x 12 cm/2.12 x 7.12 x 4.72 in. Withdrawn from an auction at Paris, Drouot (Pierre Bergé & Associés) on December 18, 2019.

Citing the 1789 decree putting Church property “at the disposal of the Nation”, France’s Ministry of Culture has been seizing ecclesiastical art for several years. A "mourner" from Burgundy and Chartres’s former rood screen (jubé in French) were the most emblematic cases, but more followed.

On October 4, Drouot Patrimoine president Alexandre Giquello opened a panel discussion where Marie-Amélie Carlier of the Brimo de Laroussilhe Gallery, medieval art expert Laurence Fligny and attorney Basile Ader voiced their bewilderment over a wave of government claims signaling a more hard-line policy.

A mourner from a Burgundian duke’s tomb was seized from collectors whose family had owned it for over a century, even though they had loaned it to the Dijon museum on four occasions. The Musées de France tried to buy the Chartres rood screen, identified by the Brimo de Laroussilhe Gallery, at a cut-rate price before it was also confiscated. Ms. Fligny mentioned lesser-known cases involving reliquary panels and stained glass windows from Saint-Denis Abbey. And a few days after the round table, Alençon auctioneer Patrice Biget was ordered to hand over a collection of manuscripts from Mont-Saint-Michel that he had pulled from a 2018 sale.

“A Long Slumber”
Didier Touzelin, head of legal affairs at the Ministry of Culture’s heritage department, said that the policy dates back to the 19th century when manuscripts by Molière and Montaigne were claimed. His co-worker, Paulina Navarro, an attorney who handles such cases at the ministry, nuanced his remarks, saying that the government has awoken from a “long period of slumber in the 20th century”, when it preferred “negotiating agreements” instead of seizing property outright. She argued that this pragmatism amounted to “poor management of public funds”. When asked about differences in the treatment of individuals, Mr. Touzelin said that the ministry was working to better "coordinate its action and harmonize its policy”. He stopped short of proposing a one-stop office that could give professionals information before a sale, as Mr. Giquello advised him to do. However, despite diplomatic and practical hurdles, he believes that works “must be reclaimed” from foreign institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum, which owns other Burgundian mourners that France has never sought to recover.

If the government looks as though it has made a u-turn in some of these cases, says Mr. Touzelin, it is because the findings of a methodical “scientific and historical analysis” were being awaited to make these claims— even if it is disputed by the plaintiffs, who, Mr. Ader says, consider themselves victims of “arbitrary” decisions covered by administrative courts, which have ruled in the government’s favor in every case.

A European Convention
The word that has focused all the stakeholders’ minds is “compensation”. This is clearly where the future of the cases will play out. The family that had to relinquish the mourner statue has filed a suit with the European Court of Human Rights to obtain "rightful compensation" for being dispossessed. The first hurdle was overcome when the case was accepted a year ago. France has sent the court its observations in response to questions about its conduct. The suit is expected to last another year or so.

There have been other surprises along the way, as a recent court decision made public during the round table showed. Following the 2018 seizure of a manuscript commentary by St. Thomas Aquinas owned by the descendants of a collector who had purchased it in good faith in 1901, attorney Corinne Hershkovitch filed an appeal with the administrative court. For 25 years, the work had been in the Maine-et-Loire archives, from which the family had requested a public inventory that was never carried out. On September 21, the court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor, arguing that since the government had not shown any sign of interest for nearly 120 years, it was quite reasonable for the family to believe they were the work’s rightful owner. Its seizure, the court ruled, was a "special and excessive burden" entitling them to compensation for "the loss of patrimonial interest". A property worth €300,000 was "extremely underpriced" at €25,000, Ms. Hershkovitch said. But, based explicitly on the European Convention on Human Rights, she believes a “door has been opened”: the administrative court acknowledges that the owners of religious art possess a "patrimonial" interest entitling them to compensation if they are expropriated. The dispute will bounce back to the European Court in Strasbourg, where it will then involve fairly calculating the damage caused to the private persons who were the discoverers and custodians of these works.

Collection of 12th and 13th-century manuscripts from Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey withdrawn from an auction at Alençon on May 5, 2018.

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