There’s a reason why I write about about paintings. If I know why provenance is crucial and inventory is vital, why you should always check the artist’s signature, and what you can hope to learn by reading the label on the back of the frame, it’s because my husband was an enthusiastic art collector. Over a period of nearly twenty years, starting in 1990 and up until his death in 2009, he amassed a collection of nearly 130 paintings. The pictures are American Impressionists and post-Impressionists, and some 80 of them are due to go on sale at Christie’s in Paris in March 2016.
Jean-Claude began collecting American paintings more or less by chance. In 1990, he bought a picture by a painter he thought was French, but who turned out to be American. That awakened his curiosity in American art, and in the following months he purchased works by Daniel Ridgeway Knight, Frank Boggs and James McNeill Whistler.
His interest endured until the end of his life. Collecting was my husband’s means of self-expression. Like many collectors he had no artistic talent of his own, but collecting enabled him to capture beauty from a different angle. It was a way to become more than himself. His profession as a travel agent led him to explore the globe, and his fervour for paintings led him to discover art and beauty.
For nearly twenty years, Jean-Claude tracked down artwork by American painters all over France. He kept abreast of sales in all the big auction houses, pinpointed likely paintings, researched their provenance, contacted auctioneers and experts for additional information. Whenever possible, he attended sales himself, both in Paris and in the rest of France.
Once the painting was safely home, the real work started. Jean-Claude made a point of checking the authenticity of all his paintings. He viewed research as an integral part of his collecting activity. He corresponded with American museums and galleries, art experts working on catalogues raisonnés (a comprehensive, annotated listing of all known artworks by an artist), and sometimes even with the family of the artist.
Some of the painters he came across were less than famous, and some of the pictures he bought had been previously unknown. Jean-Claude regularly provided documentation on these little-known artists along with photos of their work to research institutions such as the Frick Art Reference Library and the Smithsonian’s Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture. In a letter addressed to him in 2002, the Chief of the Frick Collections Development and Research Department wrote: “Donations such as this, from private collectors, have been a tremendously rich source for our photo archive over the years.”
Art was a passion that changed Jean-Claude’s existence, and it also became the backdrop to our family life. We tramped round Paris trying to determine the exact spot from which a picture of the Ile Saint Louis or the Square du Vert Galant had been painted. We made excursions to Chézy-sur-Marne and Giverny and looked at the shape of the trees. Once we went to Venice and sized up the Grand Canal. Another time we poked round a cemetery in Dinard trying to find the headstone of a relative of Jules Pagès. The friends who were sometimes dragged along on these outings were intrigued rather than annoyed. We visited curators at the Brooklyn Museum of Art to discuss Morgan Russell, and the Cincinnati Art Museum to discuss Elizabeth Nourse. Staying with friends in Washington, I was dispatched to the National Museum of American Art to see what I could find in their archives on Elizabeth Gardner.
Unsurprisingly, art filtered into my own work too. The hero of Compassion is a sculptor, and the heroine of The Judas Tree is an art restorer. Girl with Parasol features a fictional painting by Monet which is hidden from the Nazis in Occupied Paris by the niece of a Jewish art dealer, assisted by the real-life curator Rose Valland, who spied for the Résistance in the Jeu de Paume.
There were always too many paintings to hang on the walls, and lately most of them have been living in the basement, which always seemed a pity. When I made the decision to sell them, an American auction house seemed the best way to go and so I contacted Christies. The paintings will go under the hammer in the course of Christies’ Vente Intérieur, to be held at their auction rooms at 9 avenue Matignon on Thursday March 17, starting at 1400. The catalogue includes works by Jules Pagès, George Oberteuffer, Alexander Robinson, Abraham Warshawsky, James Whistler, Frank Boggs, Morgan Russell, Charles-Henri Fromuth, Theodore Butler, Clarence Montfort Gihon, Birger Sandzen, and Francis Morton Johnson.