Family seeks share of the 'prehistoric Picasso' spoils

France/ cave art clash
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IN JANUARY, three explorers and the French ministry of culture announced the discovery of cave paintings of such quality that the unknown creator of the images of bison, mammoths, rhinoceros and deer became known as "the prehistoric Picasso".

As with the estate of many a great artist, however, the struggle for the right to exploit his genius has been ferocious. Last week the cave art was the subject of a court judgment that began to sort out a twisted tangle of human and judicial relations.

In the small town of Vallon, nestled in the rugged Ardeche river gorges, it is immediatelyclear how high the stakes are. The south-eastern town has long been popular with French families, renowned for its outdoor activities, mountain scenery and above all its caves. Now, with the help of the culture ministry, Vallon is capitalising on the prehistoric paintings in a big way.

Posters showing the herds of bison and rhinos and advertising the "Chauvet cave" - named after Jean-Marie Chauvet, the first of the three cavers to enter the painted cave - are in every shop window. The community hall has been transformed into a museum, which has mock-ups of cave dwellings and cave artists, and flint and bone samples from the many caves in the region.

Given that access to the cave itself is prohibited, the chief attractions of the museum are the backlit photographs of the Chauvet cave paintings. The museum has seen a stream of visitors from local school groups to tourists.

The Coulange family, however, which owns a canoe shop in Vallon, has been left out of all this development, even though the entrance to the cave is on their land. They had hoped that the ministry would agree to manage the cave jointly, with the owners of the land responsible for opening it to the public, and the ministry monitoring standards. This, they say, is what happens with the Lascaux caves. Instead, much of their time has been spent in legal argument. The fanfare with which the discovery of the paintings was greeted - photographs, posters and video-cassettes were published and distributed around the world - quickly soured for the Coulanges. The culture ministry sealed off the entrance to the cave and disguised it to prevent the paintings being damaged: a necessary step except that no one asked the landowners' permission. But after the long haul of painstaking study, they believed they would be in a position to benefit from the find.

Then it emerged that the bureaucrats had signed contracts with two sets of photographers - the amateur cavers, and photographers from the culture ministry - and with the Sygmaagency, but not with them. "It was as though we didn't exist," Odile Coulange complained.

The family's claim to a share of the spoils came to court last month. In his verdict on Wednesday, the judge decided that because of the importance of the discovery - the paintings arethought to date from 33,000 BC, rather than 15,000 BC as first thought, making them the oldest to be found in the world - the culture ministry did indeed have a right to manage the find.

But he also decided that the family had a legitimate claim, and appointed an expert to consider the value of copyright on the pictures and recommend a sum that should be paid to them. The specialist must report by the end of December. In the meantime, all dissemination of the photographs has been suspended.

The judge's finding is seen as a legal precedent in France, where the authorities are often regarded as being able to override almost any individual interest in favour of the interest of the state. But there was a sting in its tail - he also ordered a full survey to check that the cave itself, and not just its entrance, comes within the Coulanges' territory. If it is found not to, the family's whole claim will be officially nullified.