Not just a pretty picture

How can the sale of one man's possessions lead to scandal and a comedy of errors? Geraldine Norman explains
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The Independent Culture
When Jean Marc Vernes died at the age of 73 last April, he left a lot of dilemmas behind. For his family, the greatest dilemma was whether or not to accept their designated roles as heirs to his estate. The French government, for its part, faced the dilemma of whether to buy the art works Jean-Marc had promised to give them in lieu of tax while still alive and apparently rich - namely, Van Gogh's Jardin a Auvers, one of the artist's last landscape paintings, and a magnificent rosewood and porcelain jewel box made for Queen Marie Antoinette.

Vernes was one of the most successful French bankers of the Eighties, but an over-extended position in the property market and an association with an Italian agri-business millionaire, Raul Gardini, who committed suicide in 1993 following accusations of corruption, reversed his position. At the time of his death, Vernes' financial situation was desperate, but no one knew how desperate. He died of cancer brought on, perhaps, by worry.

His wife Janine and his two children, Pierre and Edith, hired an army of lawyers and accountants in order to decide whether or not it was in their interests to accept his estate. Under French law it is permissible to refuse an inheritance if you believe that the deceased's debts exceed his assets. If you accept, you will be required to pay his debts, making good any shortfall from your own resources.

The family has decided that the inheritance is worthwhile. But the handsome country house 40kms west of Paris, which Jean-Marc found handy for shooting parties on the nearby estates of his aristocratic friends - he adored la chasse - and the apartment on the Avenue Foch may have to follow the Van Gogh and the porcelain jewel box down the tube.

On Monday and Tuesday nights the best of his art and antiques will be auctioned off in the ballroom of the Hotel Georges V, just off the Champs Elysees, and it will be the government's turn to face up to its dilemma. They are included in the main winter sales mounted by the ebullient auctioneer Jacques Tajan - the biggest business getter of all the 72 commisaires priseurs (auctioneers) of Paris. The furniture will be offered on Monday and the pictures on Tuesday.

The exquisite little jewel casket on stand - really, its own matching table - cost Jean-marc 23m francs in Nov-ember 1991, and tomorrow's price may well not go that high. It was made by Martin Carlin, the most fashionable French furniture maker of his day, and delivered to Versailles for the use of Marie Antoinette in 1770. It is made of rosewood and encrusted with Sevres porcelain plaques of summer flowers on a white ground, held in place by elegantly moulded, chiselled gilt bronze.

The Queen took it to prison with her - it is recorded in an inventory of the furniture in the Tuileries made by the revolutionaries after she went to the guillotine. How they sold it is unknown, but it spent most of the 19th century in the collection of Baron Alphonse de Rothschild. From his heirs, it passed into the less salubrious hands of Roberto Polo. A young Cuban banker, Polo made a terrific splash in New York and Paris in the Eighties, and was taken to be an art collector of dazzling taste. He presented the Louvre with the Sevres vase in which Napoleon's son, the ill-fated King of Rome, was christened, and the crown made for the Empress Eugenie in 1855 incorporating 2,490 diamonds and 56 emeralds. The French government made him a commandeur des arts et des lettres. Then, it was discovered that he had been spending his clients' money on art. He did a bunk, was captured in Italy and only came out of prison last year.

In November, 1991, Jacques Tajan, the same Paris auctioneer who will take tomorrow's sale, auctioned the contents of Polo's Paris apartment on behalf of his creditors. After the sale, in a moving address to the press, Tajan announced that Jean-Marc Vernes had purchased Marie Antoinette's casket with the intention of giving it back to Versailles, the great royal palace outside Paris, which is now a museum. The gift was to take the form which the French call a dation. After the death of a French citizen, his heirs are permitted to pay estate duty by presenting art works of equivalent value to a national museum and the procedure is called a dation to differentiate it from a donation, or out-and-out gift.

Tajan and Vernes had become friends some time before this. The high-profile auctioneer and the banker were both members of the Club des Cents, an elite club for gourmets. Their perfectly tailored suits had to stretch a little over their tummies. "Vernes loved gastronomy and les bons vins", Tajan told me recently with a catch in his voice. It seems that the astute auctioneer explained to Vernes the advantages of a dation. Vernes was so taken with the concept that he spent another 55m francs the following year to acquire Van Gogh's Jardin a Auvers.

Both the jewel casket and the Van Gogh had been scheduled as heritage items before the auctions took place which meant that they could never be taken out of France. That, in turn, greatly reduced their auction prices because it reduced the number of people prepared to bid for them. In the case of the Van Gogh, it has been successfully argued in court that the fair price on the international market would have been as much as 200m francs, compared to the modest 55m francs "home-market" bid that secured the painting for Vernes.

This consideration was probably uppermost in the banker's mind when he bought the two items. The value of a dation is calculated on the basis of the international price. Vernes' heirs would thus, in theory, have been able to pay 200m francs' worth of tax with a Van Gogh that had cost 55m francs. The same kind of calculation would have applied to the jewel casket. Financially, it was a brilliant wheeze, but to actually become effective Vernes' estate would have had to owe taxes on this scale. That was the kind of fortune he expected to leave in 1992, but by 1996 it had evaporated. As it turns out, the estate has no taxes to pay and the art works are being sent back to auction.

The catalogue of tomorrow's sale makes it very clear that Vernes was no great art collector. There are only 14 lots in the sale which Tajan admits are the best things that Vernes owned. Compared to his Van Gogh, the paintings collection is ludicrous - a sexy oriental nude by Kees van Dongen which he picked up in the Polo sale and a group of works by Bernard Buffet, the contemporary French artist who paints sombre realist views adored by the Japanese but disdained by his compatriots. There are rich 18th-century French furnishings - a giltwood table, two lacquer corner cupboards and a lacquer commode - which have the decorative quality that has always appealed to old-fashioned Frenchmen but are nothing out of the ordinary.

In other words, Vernes had the conventional taste of the French bourgeoisie - French furniture and modern pictures. Tajan's introduction to the catalogue reveals that Vernes belonged to the grande bourgeoisie Parisienne. His family founded the Banque Vernes in 1821. The bank was nationalised in 1982 and Jean-Marc received 100m francs compensation. He ploughed the money back into the tiny Banque Commerciale et Industrielle du Marais with such great success that he was allowed to change its name in 1991 to Banque Vernes (mark two, as it were).

His political connections were all with the right and he became known as the `banker of the RPR' - the RPR, or Rassemblement pour la Republique, being the party of President Chirac, whose election campaign was supported by Vernes. The buzz in Paris suggests that Chirac intends to see that his government comes up with the money to buy the casket tomorrow night and the Van Gogh on Tuesday - and help his old friend's widow out of trouble.

Van Gogh, however, presents the government with a major embarrassment. It was classified as a monument historique in 1989, which meant that it was not allowed to leave the country. Three years later, its owner, Jean- Jacques Walter, sent it for sale and got a mere 55m francs from Vernes for it. Angry and humiliated, he decided to sue the Government for the loss he had suffered by not being able to obtain an international price for the picture. He fought a long, hard battle through the French courts and, in February 1996, the Government was instructed to pay him 145m francs compensation.

In effect, that means that the Government has already paid 145m for the Van Gogh without actually obtaining ownership. It would, therefore, seem logical for them to send a representative to tomorrow's sale to pay the 50m or so francs necessary to complete the deal and become full owners of the painting. But in the meantime, a new consideration has arisen which may hold them back - the French newspapers have aired the possibility that the painting is a fake.

The scandal is a comedy of errors of the kind that only the French are capable of dreaming up. The journalist who has spent months gathering evidence which might prove the point, Jean-Marie Tasset, has not been allowed to publish his findings in Le Figaro. There is one straightforward explanation for this - that he is wrong and the publishers don't want the paper to look silly. All the accepted Van Gogh authorities say that the painting is genuine, including the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Zurich scholars Roland Dorn and Walter Feilchenfeldt who are working on a catalogue raisonne and the British scholar Ronald Pickvance.

But the Parisians prefer a more convoluted explanation. They point out that the owner of Le Figaro, Robert Hersant, was a friend of Jean-Marc Vernes whose bank lent the paper money. The good Robert, they say, would not allow his friend's famous picture to be denigrated in the pages of his own newspaper.

Friendship is a great thing and there is no doubt that Vernes had many friends in high places. Whether the French government, even at Chirac's urging, will dare to pay 200m francs for a possible fake remains to be seen. Tuesday's sale will provide the answer.

! Hotel George V, 31 Avenue George V, Paris 75008. Contact the auction house, Etude Tajam, on 00 33 1 53 30 30 30. Viewing today, Sunday December 8, 11am-9pm; sale Monday December 9-8pm, Tuesday 10-8.30pm.