The French Court of Appeal has refused an application to compel the inclusion of a riverscape, purportedly by Claude Monet, in a catalogue raisonné of the artist’s works. In its decision, the Court emphasised that it was not required to make a decision regarding the work’s authenticity but was rather determining whether the authors of the catalogue (in this case, the Wildenstein Institute) should be forced to include a work that they did not consider to be genuine.
In 1993, British art collector David Joel purchased the painting, “Les bords de la Seine à Argentueil” (dated 1875 on its frame), for €50,000 in a private sale. This was despite art dealer and collector Daniel Wildenstein having already rejected the painting in 1982 following an approach from Christie’s and the painting failing to sell at auction.
The painting was featured in a June 2011 episode of the BBC programme Fake or Fortune?. In support of its conclusion that the painting was genuine, the programme relied on an illustration of the painting in Monet’s obituary (as published in French newspaper Le Figaro) and uncovered information regarding the painting’s provenance, going back as far as the artist’s dealer Georges Petit. The programme also cited evidence from specialists including the late Professor John House of the Courtauld Institute of Art and Paul Hayes Tucker, an art historian at the University of Massachusetts and leading expert on the work of Monet.
Joel presented the findings of the BBC programme to the Wildenstein Institute in a further attempt to secure the painting’s inclusion in the catalogue raisonné, but was met with another rejection. This prompted Joel to commence legal proceedings against the Wildenstein Institute in the French Courts in 2014.
During the course of proceedings, the Wildenstein Institute filed its own expert evidence disputing the painting’s authenticity including opinions from Joachim Pissarro (Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries in New York and great grandson of Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro), Dr Charles Frederick Stuckey (art historian and former museum curator) and Richard Brettell (Professor of Art and Aesthetic Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas).
Joel lost the case in 2014 when the French Court refused to compel the Wildenstein Institute to include the painting in their catalogue raisonné.
Joel subsequently appealed the judgment but to no avail: the French Court of Appeal confirmed the lower Court’s decision in a judgment handed down on 15 December 2015. The Court emphasised that it was not making any finding as to whether the painting could in fact be attributed to Monet; it was only required to decide whether or not to compel the Wildenstein Institute to include a work in a catalogue raisonné in circumstances where they did not consider it authentic. In this case, the Wildenstein Institute were entitled to exercise their discretion in omitting the work from the catalogue.
The case underscores the considerable power wielded by the author of an artist’s catalogue raisonné and the reluctance of the French Courts to intervene on matters of attribution.