Sitting on a Vuillard?

There’s a saying that goes something like ‘what you don’t know, won’t hurt you’. While a very true sentiment, it is not the absolute truth. Yes, ignorance is bliss, but, continuing with the theme of adages, knowledge is power, enlightening if you want to reduce the overbearing sentiment in that last maxim. What you know shapes you in so many amazing ways that it is almost incongruous for us not to want to be better informed.
Someone, somewhere is sitting on a fortune. A work of art by the French painter Edouard Vuillard, co-founder of Les Nabis, was picked up by a seemingly learned individual – it is reasonable to speculate that the buyer knows a thing or two about art – for £3,000 eight years ago. It is estimated that today it could be worth as much as £250,000. However, their identity still remains a mystery and experts are keen to find out what has happened to the painting. It’s a closure much desired.
The revelation of there being a ‘displaced’ Vuillard was made during the opening episode of the BBC’s latest Fake or Fortune? TV series, which was focused on the team’s efforts to help scriptwriter Keith Tutt establish whether another painting by the artist, which he picked up for a bargain at a country sale room, was indeed by the post-impressionist painter. Both were sold separately by the art dealer Robert Warren.
It was a bit of a risky punt for Mr Tutt, as though the oval picture of a cafe scene in Paris looked like very much like something the Frenchman would have composed, a work by Vuillard rarely, if ever, sells outside of the big auction houses and even then, estimates, regardless of location, are usually in the hundreds of thousands.
However, the writer has been a fan of the French painter since his youth and sometimes one must take a leap of faith … a life to be lived and all that. On occasion, you’ll fall flat on your face, pride dented, while at other times, you’re king of the castle, living the dream. It’s often all down to the whimsical roll of a dice.
Mr Tutt subsequently found that painting was so much cheaper than it should be because it is not documented in the official list of Vuillard’s work, which is one of the reason’s he was keen to get it authenticated. As the leading specialist dealer in British art Philip Mould remarked “in art world terms it’s like a car without the engine. You have to have the paperwork to go with it”.
And so the team sets out to validate it. Immediately though, they hit a snag. Mr Tutt is pointed towards the Wildenstein Institute in Paris, a world renowned authority on authenticating works by some of the most important artists in the world. Its initial judgement was that it wasn’t real.
The BBC had previously presented a work purported to be by Claude Monet to the institute, but was eventually rejected, much to everyone’s shock. This time then, the team was keen to do as much research and analysis as possible to build a solid case (even though they felt they had done this with the French impressionist).
“In the course of making the programme we threw everything into the pot in terms of forensics, science, historical (provenance) research, and even established that it been painted in distemper made from boiling hot animal glue,” explained Mr Tutt last month.
After amassing a catalogue of evidence, using various techniques, both classic and state of the art, and expert analysis by authority figures, scholars and specialists, the Wildenstein Institute agreed to reconsider the painting. Confident that the work is genuine, the work was expertly packed by Cadogan Tate and safely shipped over to Paris.
And then it was a nervous wait … a very long one. Ten weeks after the work had arrived at the institution for intense scrutiny, it was unanimously confirmed as an undisputable Vuillard. It will now be added to the official list, which, if this case is anything to go by, is most certainly not complete. There is another Vuillard out there.
It’s a somewhat bittersweet story though. While it is a success story for Mr Tutt, as the show’s host Fiona Bruce acknowledged, its previous owner Mr Warren had travelled all over Europe trying to prove that it was real. Alas, some you win, some you lose. For art lovers though, especially those fond of Vuillard’s work, it can be agreed that history wins outright.