An incomprehensible preemption of the Château de Fontainebleau

All the versions of this article: English , français

Fontainebleau has been spared the fashion for forgeries until now, but it has now taken a dive. The château today preempted a recent copy (ill. 1), dating from 1968, of Franz-Xaver Winterhalter’s painting Empress Eugenie Surrounded by her Ladies in waiting now in the Château de Compiègne (ill. 2), for the sum of €20,000, not including fees, which makes a total of €26,000, i.e. the low estimate (there did not seem to be a large crowd of people in the audience to acquire this painting). The author ? Miloud Boukerche, an Algerian painter usually specialised in Orientalist scenes of a mediocrity that justifies their selling for a few hundred euros, at most 3000 or 4000 €, which still seems a lot (ill. 3).
His Wikipedia file tells us that he was also a copyist at the Louvre, reproducing paintings for foreign buyers.

2. Miloud Boukerche (1908-1978)
after Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873)
Empress Eugénie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting, 1968
Oil on canvas - 292 x 415 cm
Preempted by the Château de Fontainebleau
Photo : Boisgirard-Antonini
See the image in its page
2. Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873)
The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by her Ladies In Waiting, 1855
Oil on canvas - 300 x 420 cm
Compiègne, Musée national du château
Photo: Wikimedia (public domain)
See the image in its page

3. Miloud Boukerche (1908-1978)
Idyll of the Atlas
Oil on canvas - 78 x 65 cm
Digard Auction, 26 November 2007
Photo : Digard Auction
See the image in its page

The painting in question is just such a commission: a copy with a "important gilded carved wooden frame enriched on the four uprights with the cipher of the Empress Eugenie in cartouches, an exact replica of the original frame" as the sales catalogue notice states, painted for Thomas L. Fawick, an American living in Cleveland. It passed through several hands before being acquired by Christopher Forbes, in whose sale it was sold by Osenat in 2016, before entering a Monaco collection...
There is no doubt that Miloud Boukerche had a certain talent as a copyist. But why should a work of this type, which is at best purely decorative, be included in a French museum? How could the Service des Musées de France authorise such a masquerade and authorise the preemption? How could the curators have accepted (or encouraged, which is hard to believe) a purchase like this, assuming that they had accepted it? One of them, in any case, Jean Vittet, whom we have usually known to be more inspired, was in the room to exercise the preemption on behalf of his museum without batting an eyelid.

We questioned both the château and the Ministry of Culture to understand what could have motivated such a purchase. There is no answer for the moment [see from the P.-S.], but we can sketch out the beginnings of an explanation: the aim seems to be to install this copy in the place where the painting had been hung by the empress. The empress, who had probably acquired it for her personal collection, had it returned to her in 1881 while she was in exile in England. It was sold in 1927 and donated to the Musée national de Malmaison, then transferred in 1952 to the Château de Compiègne. It has a rightful place there as it is the centrepiece of the Second Empire Museum.

4. Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)
Reception of the Siamese Ambassadors by Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie, 1864
Oil on canvas - 128 x 260 cm
Versailles, Musée national du château, on deposit at the Château de Fontainebleau
Photo: RMN-GP
See the image in its page

For a long time, Fontainebleau held out hope that it would return, even leaving the site empty with a cartel telling its story. But in 2017, Versailles, at his request, placed the very important painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme Reception of the Siamese Ambassadors by the Emperor Napoleon III at the Palace of Fontainebleau, 27 June 1861 (ill. 4) which filled the void. A painting that is perfectly in place (ill. 5): bearing witness to an important episode in the history of the Château de Fontainebleau, it allows, in what is now the Chinese Museum, to evoke the objects that disappeared during the 2015 theft, in particular the gold crown of the King of Siam and a sword offered by the Siamese ambassadors to Napoleon during the visit represented in this painting. The installation of the copy would thus mean ipso facto the return of Gérôme’s work to Versailles where it was only visible during guided tours, like the Chinese museum but much less frequent, thus putting an end to an exemplary cooperation with a real patrimonial meaning.

5. Gérôme’s painting hanging in the Chinese museum of the Château de Fontainebleau
Photo: La Tribune de l’Art
See the image in its page

So here we are, acquiring a recent copy to install it in a historical setting in place of a major painting that will be less easily seen. And let us remember that Marie-Christine Labourdette, president of the public institution, and therefore ultimately responsible for the acquisition - we would really like to know who had the idea of this purchase, and the role played, or not, by the curators - is also the co-author of the report on museum acquisitions. The fact that she is involved in what will undoubtedly remain one of the worst acquisitions of recent years is tasty for someone who claims to be giving lessons to other institutions.
One can imagine what works - authentic ones at that - the museum could buy with the 26,000 €. Knowing that the painting was estimated at 20 to 40,000 euros by the auction company, it is moreover obvious that the maximum amount foreseen for this preemption was probably at least 52,000 € (with expenses), i.e. the high estimate, and perhaps even more: according to our information, the castle already wanted to acquire it in 2016 at the Forbes sale, and had provisioned 100,000 € (!), the preemption being at the time granted by the direction of the Museums of France with Marie-Christine Labourdette at its head. He was unable to get it because the painting had fetched the outrageous sum of €120,000 excluding expenses. But before we are told that the castle made a good deal...

The preemption mechanism allows the sale to be cancelled during the fifteen days following the sale. The Château de Fontainebleau and the Ministry of Culture must renounce this purchase, which is more of a joke than anything else.
This affair is sufficiently serious for the minister to take it up and question the dysfunctions that allowed it to happen.

Didier Rykner


After this article was published, we received the following reply from Marie-Christine Labourdette, which we give in full. This only confirms our hypothesis, and our information on the attempted preemption in 2016, which obviously does not change anything in our article:

"The copy of the almost identical painting of Franz Xavier WINTERHALTER’s famous masterpiece, The Empress Eugenie surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting, has just been preempted by the State for the benefit of the Château de Fontainebleau, as a decorative element.
This modern copy, dated 1968, will make it possible to evoke more precisely the original state of the salon-gallery of the Empress Museum at the château. The original, which was hung by the Empress in this space, is now one of the masterpieces of the Second Empire Museum in Compiègne.
This acquisition is part of the ongoing process of reconstituting the great Fontainebleau decorations initiated by Jean-Pierre and Colombe Samoyault, particularly in this part of the château.

Fontainebleau had attempted this acquisition in March 2016 at the Forbes sale, but the preemption was unsuccessful at the time, the painting having been sold for €120,000 at the hammer. It was therefore logical that, with this work returning to the auction seven years later with a much lower estimate, the museum chose to acquire it under extremely favourable conditions, since it was preempted at the low end of the estimate, i.e. €20,000.

We are almost certain that there is no other large-scale copy of this monumental and decorative work, the original of which is legitimately on display in Compiègne.
The fact that it is a "full size" copy with an identical frame legitimises the acquisition by enabling the restoration of a decoration for which the notion of scale is fundamental. It goes without saying that the castle will be very careful to explain to its visitors that this is an evocation/restitution


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