7. 2016: The Chase Begins
Updated: May 26, 2020
So here I was with a painting by an important post-Impressionist artist that no one in the museum world outside of Stockton, CA, had known existed since shortly after Neville Chamberlain tried to appease Hitler by signing over the Sudetenland.
One obvious choice was to look up some current Gauguin experts and send them an email:
Hi there--Just a note to let you know that Gauguin's Flowers and Fruits, listed as missing since 1964? Found it.
But the detective in all the best mysteries never begins with the obvious. If it's obvious, then it's too simple. There must be missing clues. And then, if anyone is going to discover anything, and I had already found this painting that the Paris authorities had given up for dead, I wanted to make sure that I knew as much as I could before I handed the evidence over.
I went back into the museum's collection file for Flowers and Fruit. In another set of records at the Haggin, I found the 1987 correspondence between the museum and Dr. Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutynsky. I have found no photos of this man with the fabulous name, but in my mind he wears a heavy wool overcoat over a carefully pressed suit that is worn at the cuffs--a suit tailor-made for him in whatever middle-European city he was chased out of by wars and revolutions. He has a goatee, mostly grey, and not much hair left under his fedora. His gold-rimmed glasses are small; there's a prominent mole just below his left eye. When I read his correspondence, I hear his voice, and as he reads, he is sitting over coffee and cognac in a Paris café. The table has a marble top. The people next to him are smoking Gauloises.
Jirat-Wasiutynsky, who died in 2006, was a Princeton-trained Gauguin scholar. The museum sent him a color slide of Flowers and Fruit and Jirat-Wasiutynsky concluded that he didn't think Gauguin had painted it. The contrast between the fruit and the roses, the form, the outlines, the signature: too many things felt off. He shook his head (as he finished his cognac) and puzzled: “it is not by Gauguin. But who is it by?”
The plot thickened. Had the museum willfully deceived its public in the 30 years since Jirat-Wasiutynsky had delivered his judgment? The questioned Gauguin had remained in the museum's gallery, between a Renoir and a William Merritt Chase.
The museum had the sale receipt, after all, and the painting had been listed—albeit as lost—in the 1964 Wildenstein catalogue raisonné. The catalogue even included an image of the painting: if it was not by Gauguin, then how had it been photographed, and sold and bought and sold and bought, by collectors and gallerists? And why did the museum have a receipt for the sale of a Gauguin--this Gauguin--from a respected dealer, if it wasn't a genuine Gauguin?
We agreed that before we involved the experts--and here, imagine calling in Scotland Yard, or the FBI, Interpol, Sûreté--that I would do a little quiet, unobtrusive sleuthing on my own.
What could it harm? It wouldn't take more than a few weeks.
That was four years ago.