2. 2016, 1923: The Mystery
Updated: May 26
Entry for sale at auction of Flowers and Fruit, April 14, 1923. Archives de Paris D.48E3 103, Baudoin: Janvier-avril 1923.
April 14, 1923 was the kind of cloudy day that couldn’t commit to spring, when people hurried, heads down, along Parisian sidewalks, anxious to get back inside into the warmth. After a sustaining lunch, the art lovers and investors and the merely curious made their way back to Saleroom 10 of the venerable Hôtel Drouot, the largest auction house in France. At 2 o’clock that afternoon, almost a hundred paintings and drawings from the collections of 23 different “amateurs and art merchants” would go under the hammer. Among them were 13 works by Paul Gauguin. They came from the art dealer Léon Marseille, a young man who had only recently inherited his father’s gallery on Paris’ Left Bank. Marseille consigned 13 eight oil paintings, four drawings, and one pastel to the auction. The works ranged in subject and size. A few drawings were of Gauguin’s friends. One landscape showed a shepherdess and her sheep, another, a woman collecting firewood in the snow. And there were three still lifes—still lifes that had been, according to the auction catalog, in the collection of the artist’s old associate Louis Roy.
One of those still lifes travels the world today as an authentic painting by Paul Gauguin. One has been lost to history. The third hangs in storage in a little known museum in a struggling city in California’s Central Valley. Why is it forgotten? Because it has been branded a forgery.
This is the story of that painting, Flowers and Fruit, and my search to uncover its hidden story. Flowers and Fruit is a fairly ordinary Impressionist still life. A mismatched pair of vases sit on a table covered in an ochre—think Provençal yellow—cloth. Overblown pink roses fill the vases; a hodgepodge of bumpy apples, and a lone nasturtium blossom, fill out the rest of the scene. Behind the table, filling in the background of the painting, is what may be wallpaper, or may be a decorative screen—a pale blue with darker, rollicking flowers chasing up and down, and the occasional solid stripe to keep it all in frame. There is nothing here that would let the viewer know that Flowers and Fruit was painted by the same artist renowned for bringing the naked women of Tahiti in their colorful but scant sarongs to gallery walls the world over. Yet in the lower right corner of our painting there is a signature, an inscription:
Flowers and Fruit, detail; The Haggin Museum, Stockton, CA
À l’ami Roy (to the friend Roy)
On a windy January day in 2016, I saw Flowers and Fruit for the first time. It hung in the Haggin Museum in Stockton, California. The Museum had hired me to research and write about their permanent paintings collection. It was a daunting and exciting task. I was prepared for it by my career as a museum curator and a professor of museum studies: I get paid to spend time working in and thinking about museums. I did not set out to be a curator. I set out to be a history professor. As a young woman I went off to Paris to research the lives and deaths of women who were guillotined during the French Revolution. I read hundreds of trial records, and then I went back to California and wrote a dissertation.
Life and choices intervened, and I became a museum curator and professor of museum studies. I could research and write, and I could do both in French as well as English—a skill that made me a good match for the Haggin. Flowers and Fruit was the only Impressionist work in the collection. This odd Gauguin became more of a mystery to me the more I studied it. But I could never have imagined how big a mystery it would turn out to be. For when I reached the end of my research, the reigning experts in all things Gauguin reviewed it—and dismissed it. It was a very nice painting, they said. But it was not a Gauguin. Attributed to the famous painter since the days when his fame barely stretched beyond the tables of a few Paris cafés, inscribed to one of his collaborators, and an original auction-mate to authentic Gauguins, Flowers and Fruit still did not pass muster. Why not?
This blog will chronicle that mystery as well as my quest to solve it. It will follow the trail of Flowers and Fruit across countries and continents. Gauguin himself plays a secondary role in our tale—secondary because this is a story not about him, but about this canvas and wood and paint that bears his name. We will spend more time with a cast of characters, from a provincial grocer’s son who came to Paris to seek his fortune to a hipster gallerist ; from a Russian Jewish refugee who built a life in the Paris art world to one of the greatest French celebrities. We will shake our heads over a no-good Hungarian count and stand beside a Gold Rush heiress when, on the last day of 1929, she bought Flowers and Fruit from a 5th Avenue art dealer in New York City.
And then we will watch Flowers and Fruit disappear.