A Franco-British tug of love and money broke out yesterday over a painting which disappeared from a museum in Toulouse in 1818.
The French government yesterday barred the removal from France of a painting by the 17th Century Franco-German artist Nicolas Tournier, which was recently offered for sale for about €675,000 (£579,000) by a leading London art dealer.
The painting, now owned by the Weiss Gallery in Jermyn Street, London, went on show in Paris at the weekend after months of negotiations on its possible re-sale to the Toulouse museum.
The French culture ministry declared yesterday that the painting of Christ bearing the cross was "stolen goods" and would be reclaimed by the French state.
"This work is an inalienable part of French culture," the ministry said. "We claim it is the property of the state. It is not going anywhere."
Mark Weiss, a leading London dealer in 16th and 17th century art, said the announcement had come "out of the blue" and "made no sense".
"There is not a scrap of evidence that this painting was stolen," he told The Independent in Paris yesterday. "Many paintings in that period went missing but that does not mean that they were stolen. We bought this painting in good faith and we were negotiating in good faith to sell it at a reasonable price back to the Toulouse museum, where we accept that it belongs."
The painting, Christ portant la croix (Christ carrying the cross), turned up in Florence in 2009 after being missing for almost two centuries. Its fate is now likely to be the subject of a long legal battle between Mr Weiss and the French state.
Seven feet high and four feet across, the painting was commissioned for the Eglise des Pénitents Noirs (church of the black penitents) in Toulouse in 1630.
The canvas was one of three pillaged from the church during the French Revolution in 1794 and presented to the Musée des Augustins in the south-western French city. It vanished from the museum some time after 1818.
In 2009 it was sold for €57,500 by Sotheby's as part of a sale in Florence of a collection put together by a wealthy Italian collector and dealer, Salvatore Romano (1875-1955). The painting was not identified as a Tournier at the time but was listed as "by a follower of Caravaggio".
The canvas was bought by a French dealer, Hervé Aaron, who decided – despite the contrary view of French experts – that it was the missing work from the Toulouse museum. In 2010, he offered it for sale for "around €400,000" at an art fair in Maastricht in the Netherlands.
"I fell in love with it," Mr Weiss told The Independent yesterday. "We bought it in good faith from the French dealer at a time when the Toulouse museum was refusing to accept that it was the Tournier which had disappeared. The director of the Toulouse museum, Axel Hémery, is a Caravaggio expert but he did not identify the painting at that time. He has since changed his opinion and we have been negotiating with him for months about its sale to the museum. I was expecting to see him today."
Earlier this year, the Weiss gallery offered the Tournier for sale for €675,000. "That would have been a fair price to a private buyer," Mr Weiss said yesterday. "But we were ready to sell it to the Toulouse museum for less than that."
The French culture ministry announced yesterday afternoon that it had issued an order that the painting should not leave French territory. "This is the property of the French state, which was placed in the Musée des Augustins de Toulouse and stolen in 1818," it said.
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