A court case for the recovery of two cut-outs by Henri Matisse “will be considered a test for all works of dubious origin”, said the artist’s great-grandson Georges.
According to the artist’s heirs, ‘White Palm on Red’ and ‘Green Snail on Blue’, together valued at US$4.5 million, disappeared from a storage facility in Paris with several hundred other Matisse drawings, engravings, gouaches and sculptures. The artist’s son, Pierre Matisse, is said to have put the works into storage at art-supply company Lefebvre-Foinet in 1972. When one of these works was offered for sale at a French auction house less than a year after Pierre’s death in 1989, his family became suspicious.
Several of the lost works were recovered from family and friends of Lefebvre but the fate of the cut-outs was not known until 2008 when they were consigned for sale at Sotheby’s New York. At that time, the auction house sought more detailed provenance information on the works from Matisse expert, Wanda de Guebriant, but she refused to issue a certificate of authenticity. This was because the Paris-based dealer, Jérôme Le Blay, from whom the current seller bought the works said they had been in Lefebvre’s collection since the 1960s whereas De Guebriant believes they were still in Pierre Matisse’s apartment in Nice at that time. Le Blay insists the cut-outs were bought in good faith from the widow of a local butcher who was friendly with Josette Lefebvre, heiress to the Lefebvre fortune.
When Sotheby’s received a letter from Georges Matisse in March 2008 claiming ownership of the cut-outs they were withdrawn from sale. The Hong-Kong based company, Rozven, who represents the current seller, sued Georges over the cancellation of the auction sale but the case was dismissed by a court in Nanterre in 2010. The court held that Rozven’s refusal to provide provenance for the works meant it was solely responsible for the cancellation of the sale. Appealing in July 2017, Rozven’s lawyers stated that “no one denies the authenticity of the works”.
The Versailles court of appeal’s judgment is due to be handed down in October 2017.