Taking pride of place in a special exhibition running from the 26th of March to the 1st of April, the new star is small monochrome print measuring just 20cm X 15cm. Le Marché aux poissons (The Fish Market) was painted by impressionist Camille Pisarro. Having been stolen 30 years ago and produced as just one copy, it is back on French soil after an arduous route home via the American judicial system. Its rarity, as well as the gravitas of its auteur make it a unique and valuable commodity.
The fascinating story began on the 16th of November 1981. On that day, one of the museum visitors hung around late in the painting and engraving rooms. Like many such museums in provincial locations in France at the time, the museum had a fairly rudimentary security system and the works were fixed to wall by way of simply hanging them on a hook. There was no alarm system to indicate to the security guard that one of the works was being removed. When the female security guard in question sees the thief leaving the building, her attention is drawn to his piercing eyes rather than to the large knapsack on his back and only discovers that the valuable work is missing a few precious minutes later, by which time the art thief has made good his escape. The same criminal also made off with another of Pisarro’s small mono-types – Jeanne la Captive.
The story resurfaced in May of 2003 when the conservator of the museum André Liatard received a fax from Artloss Register. This huge London-based registry of stolen works informs Liatard that a Pisarro print depicting a fish market is being put up for sale at Sotheby’s in New York.
“I didn’t know the picture – I had never seen it, but when I compared their image with the one that we had in our archives, I was in no doubt,” recalls Liatard.
The international judiciary machinery was thrown into action: The OCBC (Office Central de Lutte Contre le Trafic de Biens Culturels) informs Interpol, who in turn inform the American authorities. It seems an open-and-shut case; the property was declared officially stolen. As a piece of cultural importance, there can be no negotiation and it is withdrawn from auction and seized.
The FBI had no trouble in tracing the journey of the work. There have been three different owners. The first was a French man who was “known to the police” according to French investigators. He had been implicated in a number of art robberies in the 1980s and had set up shop in Texas where he had opened an exhibition on Barbizon paintings.
It is in Texas that he met the second link in the chain – an antiquarian from San Antonio named Jay Adelman. Adelman told police that he had acquired the painting in 1985 for $7,000 and that he had sold it a short time later for $8,500 to a Sheryl Davis; one of his assistants from California. It is Davis who, 18 years later, puts the painting up for auction for a figure estimated by Sotheby’s at between $60,000 and $80,000.
Untangling the judicial situation proved to be more complex than it should have been, despite the simplicity of the chain of events: the museum guard identified the French art thief. Even though Davis could claim to be innocent in the affair, Jay Adelman should have verified the provenance of the work and both of them should surely have questioned the low price that each paid for the piece.
The American authorities had not done anything to pursue the case during the 22 years that the painting was missing. Incredibly, the American customs officials were also concerned about the issue of duties owing on the clandestine importation of the work. The Museum in Aix-les-Bains attempted to short-circuit a potentially long story and offered to recompense Sheryl Davis for the price that she had obtained the painting.
She refused. “She was claiming $60,000,” says Liatard. “In fact, she came back to us then and proposed to split the proceeds of the auction! It wasn’t remotely considerable – it was contrary to every civic ethic of the French Museum system, as well as the fact that we simply wanted our painting back.”
The affair got bogged down in the American judicial system. In early 2010, a jury actually finds in favour of Davis and the American customs. Her good faith is taken as read and the illicit nature of the importation of the picture leads the jurists to conclude that it should remain in her possession. An appeal in June of 2011 only confirms the result.
It finally took an exceptional intervention on the part of the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs for the picture to be returned to French Ambassador in Washington on the 25th of January 2012. Despite the Kafka-esque journey of this particular work, it all came right in the end and the OCBC declares itself officially delighted with the “excellent level of cooperation between France and the USA in the fight against the illegal trafficking of art work.” Indeed, there were two more major works returned to France from the US within the same year – namely Les Blanchisseuses Souffrant des Dents (by Degas, stolen in 1973) and Une Fille de Pêcheur (by Jules Breton, stolen in 1918), so whatever means were used, all’s well that ends well it would seem.
“Everybody who looked at this little picture when it came back to the museum seems to say ‘All that trouble for thislittle thing’!” laughs André Liatard. “And it’s framed American-style too, making it bigger than it was when it left!”
Visitors to the museum will be able to admire the picture in its Hollywood-scale frame for the duration of the exhibition, after which it will be brought back to the workshop to change back into a more modest French frame. Meanwhile, the search goes on for the picture’s “little sister” stolen on that same fateful day in 1981. The oil-on-canvas was last spotted at a sale in New York November 1987 when it was purchased by a Japanese company for $140,000.
For more information on the exhibition, see the Aix-les-Bains website.