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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

34. Behind the curtain

I learned something last Thursday that merits an interruption. Vincent will continue to be sad and desperate, and Gauguin will continue to be wily and infuriating. But for a few minutes, we're going to leave them where they are and skip ahead in time.

I am forever pushing and prodding my students to think about which details they need and which they don't, and how they should show and not tell. This is a sustained exercise in exactly that. I could tell you that on October 15 of this year the Wildenstein Plattner Institute, on whose Gauguin Catalogue raisonné this work leans, put much of its archival material online. I could lead you down a corridor of what it means for the provenance field, and for art historical research, and for curatorial work, that those sorts of sources--letters, photos, record books, sales catalogs--are now live, at your fingertips.

But instead, let me lift the curtain on my research. Last Thursday--it's the end of the term, my students are tired, I'm tired, there is no one anywhere not tired except for my dog Jasper, who would like to go for another very long walk, please--last Thursday I was at the end of my patience. Headache, nausea, malaise. I offloaded dinner prep and for a treat decided to wander around in the WPI digitized sales catalogues. This is what counts as a treat for me.

"Sales catalogues" in this context means auction catalogues. It's possible to find out when and where a particular painting (or drawing or pastel or vase or chest of drawers) was put up for auction. Within the WPI database, you can put in combinations of names, dates, and places--either because you are looking for something you already know is there, or because you are fishing for something that might be there.

I plugged in Roy, my leading keyword, and Hôtel Drouot (Paris' primary auction house), and then, because I needed a limit, 1923. (Search Roy without a date and you'll get the entire length and breadth of French history.) The search returned 39 sales catalogues from 1923 that included the word "roy." I could weed out the auctions of objects from the wrong century, like this one:

I could weed out auctions of books, of furniture, of caricatures and carpets. That left eight catalogues of tableaux, paintings, to consider: a manageable number.

The database finds "roy" whenever those three letters appear in sequence. Most hits are for "royale or "royaume" or for people named LeRoy or de Roy. I can scan a page quickly to find if the name Roy appears, and when it does, it's almost never my guy Louis-Georges-Eléonor.

But in the auction of February 2, 1923, there was a painter called Roy whose works came under the hammer. It was a small lot of objects brought to sale at 2:15 that afternoon at the Hôtel Drouot, in room number 9. The works fell under the broader category of "Modern French School," the term for works that were fairly recent but not by an artist with much name recognition. This Roy's works were the only ones attached to a name. The rest were listed without the name of their maker: just a painting, something to hang on your wall.

Painting no. 31, L'absinthe, made me think that perhaps this was my Roy we were talking about--not because I knew of a painting about absinthe that he had made, but because it wouldn't be surprising if he had. Everyone was painting absinthe drinkers in the 1880s and 1890s. That the cataloguers called it an "important painting" probably referred to its size rather than its significance, particularly since objects 32 to 26 were a group of 19 assorted drawings and paintings. Most of Roy's works that I have been able to document have been about the size of my laptop. So selling them in groups of four or five doesn't seem unreasonable: minor works by a minor artist.

I wasn't convinced, though, that the Roy in question was Louis. When I search for Louis Roy in databases, he turns up so infrequently that I am skeptical when he does. I clicked to the next page of the catalogue and saw two more names: Filliger and Nemo. Two artists who were working in the same community of artists as Roy--and as Gauguin--in the late 1880s and early 1890s. We haven't yet met Charles Filliger (1863-1928) or, as he often spelled it, Filiger, in these pages. He was a contemporary of Roy, and they may have studied together at the Académie Colarossi. Filliger lived in Pont-Aven and around Brittany for most of his life; for all of his life, his paintings were nearly unsellable.

And here was a group of five of his watercolors, paintings, and drawings. Sold in a group, not individually. Unlike Roy, the name Filliger, whether with two l's or one, is unusual, and I was confident that this was our Charles.

At the bottom of the facing page there was a listing for works by Nemo--"Nemo, Bernard dit." In the 1889 Volpini Exhibition, Emile Bernard had shown work under his own name and under the name of Ludovic Nemo. He took Nemo from the hero of Jules Vernes' novels Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and The Mysterious Island (1875), novels he might well have read and would certainly have known of; they were in the cultural air of the time. Why did he include works under both his own name and a pseudonym? That is a story for another day. If these two paintings--number 70, a seascape, and number 71, a portrait of a Breton woman--were associated with the name Nemo, the likely came from the same era as the Volpini show. Bernard did not use that pseudonym again. The subject matter also linked the paintings to the Pont-Aven group of which Bernard, Filliger, and Roy had been part: when those artists weren't painting local women in traditional Breton costume, they were down by the sea, competing with how many colors they could blend to make the right blue.

What makes this February 2, 1923, auction catalogue important for us is that it shows paintings by three artists who worked closely with Gauguin during his Pont-Aven years, being sold in the same auction. This was unusual. Between 1900 and 1923, works by Emile Bernard came to auction twice at the Hôtel Drouot, at least based on the catalogues that have survived in the WPI's archives. Filliger/Filiger appears in the sales catalogues I have been able to consult three times: in this February 1923 auction, in April 1923, and again in 1926. And Louis Roy, never.

My hunch is that these works were all being sold by the same person. In 1923 if you had a painting you wanted to sell at auction, then you took that painting to a commissaire-priseur, which roughly translates to an auction specialist. The specialist would have the painting evaluated by an accredited expert; together, they would decide whether to put it up for sale and the ball park price. Sometimes the specialist worked with a the collection of an individual to put together an auction. More often, the specialist grouped works from different individuals together in the same auction. The other paintings in the February 2 auction were a hodge podge: unsigned "school of" paintings; a few studies by minor 19th-century artists like Diaz de la Peña and Henri Harpignies. There were even a 17th-century Dutch paintings. The specialist--René Hémard--and the expert--Max Bine--had put the auction together out of odd lots. I think it's likely that someone had collected, or perhaps simply held on to, the works by Roy, Filliger, and Bernard/Nemo. They brought the works to Hémard's office on the rue Lafayette, Hémard and Bine looked them over, and agreed to sell them.

What makes this striking is that a little more than two months later there was another auction of works from assorted collectors. That auction had a slightly higher threshold: there were fewer "school of" paintings and more respected artists. Courbet, Richet, Troyon are not all household names today visit the Musée d'Orsay and you will see their work. And in that auction there were two more works by Filliger, and 13 under the name of Gauguin. One of them was our own Flowers and Fruit.

It is difficult to believe that this was a coincidence. Here's what I think happened: I think that Marie Henry, our wily innkeeper, sold these paintings to Francis Norgelet when he was representing the Galerie Barbazanges in 1919. I think Norgelet did a deal on the side with Henry, and kept a few paintings back. An insurance policy, an investment he could liquidate when he needed a little extra cash. I think Norgelet brought a few Bernards, Roys, and Filligers to Hémard and Bine early in the winter of 1922, and when that worked out, he brought a few Filligers and Gauguins to another set of auctioneers in April. He kept a few back; one of them he sold to Sir Matthew Smith, his Villa Brune neighbor. These paintings coming on the market a few months of each other seems too odd to be random, and that explanation makes sense to me.

Which, of course, does not mean it's what happened.

When we can travel again, I'll go back to the Archives de Paris and comb through the files of the commissaires-priseurs. I'll try to find out who consigned those works to Hémard and Bine for the February 2, 1923 sale, and then I'll see what connections I can trace. More mucking about in archives, online and in the salle des lecteurs, the readers' room.

But for now, we'll check back in with Gauguin and the Van Gogh brothers.

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