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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

5. The Provenance

Updated: May 26, 2020

On my first visit to the Haggin Museum, in January 2016, I saw Flowers and Fruit: a fairly traditional still life of a few bumpy apples arranged in front of two mismatched vases filled with roses, sitting on a table covered with a pinkish-yellow cloth, in front of intricately patterned wallpaper or, perhaps, a screen. It did not look like famous paintings by Gauguin that I knew.

I needed to write about the painting for the museum's upcoming exhibition, so I began my research in the Haggin’s collection archives. There I found the receipt for the purchase of Flowers and Fruit:

On New Year’s Eve 1929, Eila Haggin (Mrs. Robert T.) McKee bought two paintings from the New York City gallery of Clapp and Graham. Clapp and Graham were prominent dealers in art and antiques; they worked with leading American art collectors of the day, people with names like Rockefeller and du Pont. On that cold day at the end of December, Eila purchased a flower painting by the up and coming modernist Maurice Sterne and a still life by the French post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin. In early 1939, Bob McKee, now a widower, packed up the Sterne (case #2, item #4) and Gauguin (case #1, item #11) and sent them to join the collection of the San Joaquin Pioneer and Historical Society, soon to be renamed the Haggin Museum, in Stockton, California.

So far, so good: I knew how the painting had come to Stockton. I knew that Clapp & Graham were reputable art dealers—reputable art dealers whose archives from the 1920s, alas, no longer exist. The Haggin did not appear ever to have loaned the painting for exhibition at another museum, nor had any museum staff published research on the painting.

But the painting had appeared in the 1964 catalogue raisonné for Gauguin’s works. Created by scholars and researchers, catalogues raisonnés depict the artist’s body of work and generally contain, for each work of art, all known identifying information about it. These catalogues can take decades to assemble. Once they are published, they become the recognized source of information about works created by the particular artist. To learn the provenance--the history of ownership--of a painting attributed to a particular artist, the first place to start is with the catalogue raisonné. The 1964 Gauguin catalogue was the product of 25 years of research; it listed 638 paintings. Its principle authors were the Parisian art dealers and researchers Georges and Daniel Wildenstein, father and son. Both were known as Gauguin experts. Here’s what they had to say about the painting they called Flowers and Fruit: painted in 1889, its first owner was the painter Louis Roy. From Roy, the painting went to the Barbazanges Gallery in Paris, between 1920 and 1922. It was sold on April 14, 1923, for 14000 francs to the actor and impresario Sacha Guitry, who sold it on April 27, 1929 for 42,700 francs to the dealer Max Kaganovitch. The Wildensteins believed that through Kaganovitch the painting had gone to the Reinhardt Galleries in New York…and from there, it had disappeared.

Disparu means, in French, disappeared. And it is also a way of saying that someone, or something, has died; it's a usage the you find in formal, old-fashioned obituaries. The Wildensteins had followed Flowers and Fruit around Paris for a decade--placing it in one gallery and another between 1920 and 1929--and then lost the scent once it crossed the Atlantic. Sitting over their desks in Paris, sifting through all of the museum catalogues, exhibition checklists, and auction files that they gather (and they were the Wildensteins, so that was a large stack), they could find no trace of Flowers and Fruit.

So they listed it as lost. Disappeared. Dead.

But it was not lost. Not disappeared. It was alive and living in California's Central Valley.

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