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27. Transformations

Updated: Dec 12, 2020

Respected French art dealer Joseph Allard bought two Gauguin still lifes on April 14, 1923 for just over 9,000 francs total. Allard had owned a gallery in the elegant Rue des Capucines, around the corner from the Place Vendôme and just off the Boulevard de l'Opéra, since 1911. At the Hôtel Drouot on that April afternoon, he was trolling for paintings that he could sell to some of his regular customers: collectors like Chester Dale, whose collection would find its way to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and dealers from other galleries like Goupil and Company. Here's how the auction catalogue described the first of the still lifes that Allard bought:

"On a table, exotic fruits are haphazardly arranged, some on a napkin. To the side sits an earthenware casserole. At the right, we glimpse a Japanese figure" (Tableaux modernes....(vente), 14 avril 1923, no. 72; INHA: VP 1923/254).

And here it is. The exotic fruits transform, on closer examination, into ordinary apples and onions. Allard sold the painting to the London offices of Goupil and Company, who, in turn, sold it to a Danish museum director called Helge Jacobsen. Jacobsen donated it to the collection of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen--the museum founded by the Carlsberg beer family.

If you watched the episode of Fake or Fortune that I shared last week, this image may look familiar. It's the one that the down to earth, practical but elegant Fiona Bruce shows to James, the soon-to-be-disappointed owner of a fake Gauguin. Fiona and James are sitting over glasses of wine in the reconstructed dining room of Marie Henry's inn at La Pouldu, and Fiona is making the point to James that Gauguin and friends changed their styles regularly, copying and elaborating and experimenting on each other's ideas and visions. Fiona shows this still life on her iPhone, and then a similar still life by Gauguin's friend Meier de Haan. Her point? Gauguin and his circle influenced each other--and sometimes they copied each other. In the Fake or Fortune scene, Fiona is establishing that there's uncertainty around some of the work attributed to Gauguin work in the late 1890s. That the line between work by Gauguin and works by his friends could be a shifting one.

The Onions still life, as it happens, sold in the same auction as Flowers and Fruit--and the same auction as the Still Life with Oranges that is under Fake or Fortune's scrutiny. Allard bought both the Onions, no. 72, and the Oranges, no. 79. Here is the page from the auction records:

"19/72/72 Another by Gauguin to Allard, 6600 francs...19/79/78: Another by Gauguin to Allard, 2600 francs..." Archives de Paris D48E3/3 103 Baudoin, Janvier-avril 1923

The first line in the image records the sale of no. 72 Onions, to Allard for 6600 francs; the last full entry in the image is for the sale of no. 79, Oranges, for 2600 francs, also to Allard. How do I know this? I know this because I have a not terribly good copy printed from microfilm of the auction catalogue, and the numbers match:

The auctioneers who wrote the catalogue decided that Still Life no. 79 depicted not oranges, but peaches. But we can tell from the description that it's the same painting:

On a stool with a woven straw seat are placed six peaches, two of which sit in a porcelain dish. Signed in the lower left corner with the initials P.G., and the dedication: Au seigneur Roy. (Tableaux modernes....(vente), 14 avril 1923, no. 79; INHA: VP 1923/254).

There's quite a bit more to say about this auction--explaining the meaning of the columns in the auction record is worth a conversation, and you'll be pleased to hear that there's a connection between some of these paintings and a mysterious World War One arms dealer--but those are stories for another day. Today's story is about how Fake or Fortune's experts determined that the Oranges still life was a fake, and the questions that raises.

You will recall that Fiona Bruce asked a handwriting expert with a cozy study in his back garden to compare the "P.G." signature on Oranges with two other known paintings by Gauguin.

The P.G.s to which the expert Adam Brand, every inch the gentleman scholar in his coat and tie, compares the signature on Oranges are from two other still lifes: one of apples, one of onions. The Onions signature comes from the Still Life with Onions and Japanese Woodcut.

And the Apples? Apples refers to a third still life, sold in the same auction as the Oranges/Peaches and the Onions. It was no. 73, sold for 14,000 francs to the actor Sacha Guitry. It was Flowers and Fruit.

The other signature that Brand uses to determine that Oranges is a forgery is the signature on Flowers and Fruit. He uses the signature on two Gauguins to determine that another painting is a fake. Except that one of the two has since been called into question.


Previously attributed to Paul Gauguin, Flowers and Fruit, Haggin Museum

This episode of Fake or Fortune was produced in 2016. That November, the producers of the program wrote to staff at the Haggin to ask for a photo of Flowers and Fruit. At the time, questions about the authenticity of Flowers and Fruit were still only whispers in the collection files. The museum staff sent the image and checked that task off their list. I began to research the painting more deeply in 2017, and sent off my request for inclusion in a Catalogue raisonné to the Wildenstein-Plattner Institute in 2018.

The producer of Fake or Fortune sent me a link to this episode almost exactly a year ago, in September 2019. I watched it one evening on my laptop, never suspecting that Flowers and Fruit would play any role in it; all my friends at the Haggin knew was that they had sent a photograph of the painting. If there had been further correspondence, it was lost in the usual drift of emails. When Fiona Bruce sat down in Adam Brand's cottage study and Brand pulled the image of "a l'ami Roy / PG" up on his grandmother's vocabulary was laden with idioms that rich in imagery, and one of the most vivid was: I almost dropped my teeth. Or, as she would have said it, I liked to have dropped my teeth. It's an expression that denotes shock so gobsmacking that, if you wore dentures, you would spontaneously spit them out. (For the record, Grandmother kept her teeth for 102 years. She never wore dentures.)

That's the closest I can describe to how I felt. I went back over the clip a few times to make sure I had seen what I thought I had seen. Would Adam Brand, handwriting expert, have changed his verdict had he known that Flowers and Fruit was an uncertain Gauguin? And did his interpretation of the signatures mean that Flowers and Fruit was any more certain, or did it mean, instead, that there could be a question about the Still Life with Onions? Think about it for more than a moment or two and you'll find yourself in an Escher lithograph where the staircases turn in on each other. I still haven't worked it out in my head in a way that I can hold still. What I know is that this excursion into the smoke and mirrors of authentication reveals, as much as anything, how much we don't know. How much knowledge climbs up and down, back and forth, how fish transform into birds, blocks into buildings. The moment that draws me is just before the wings become gills.

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