Jacques Tajan, the French auctioneer, banked on two major pieces, a painting by Van Gogh and the Jewel casket which belonged to Queen Marie-Antoinette, to make a series of sales successful on December 9 and 10, 1996 in Paris but both failed to meet his expectations.
The Van Gogh, «Garden in Auvers», cost 145 million francs (US $ 26,36 million) to French taxpayers after Jacques Walter, its owner, challenged the State for having forbidden its export when it was sold for a mere 55 million francs (US $ 10 million) to the banker Jean-Marc Vernes in 1992. Mr Walter went on to sue the French State claiming it would have been sold for over 200 millions francs if it had not been classified as a national treasure. A court decision was delivered in his favour and Mr Tajan hoped the State, after having been forced to pay a huge sum to Mr Walter, would have made an effort to acquire it. Instead, it fetched 32 millions francs (US $ 5,818 million) after some perturbation provoked by a handful of people as bidding was in progression. One of them shouted that the Van Gogh was a forgery produced by the Pont Aven painter Emile Schuffenecker.
Already, during preceding weeks some art historians had questioned the authenticity of the painting though French Museum officials maintained it was genuine. Richard Rodriguez, a French collector known mainly as a fan of Jean-Michel Basquiat, publicly questioned the authenticity of the painting during the sale. He claims that Mr Tajan did not signalled that a new edition of Van Gogh's catalogue raisonné had been issued in November 1996 and that its author, Jan Hulsker, had made serious reservations about «Garden in Auvers».
According to Mr Rodriguez, the sale was therefore dubious but worse, the State has been guilty of spending public money without consideration. «Now, it seems important to ask Mr Walter to pay back the 145 million FF he has been allocated through a Court decision since the painting is not authentic», Mr Rodriguez has pointed out. The problem is that the Court decision was final and that no jurisdiction can be seized to reverse the decision. Eventually, the question of the authenticity of the painting will be debated for months, if not years. It remains to be proved that «Garden in Auvers» is a forgery despite Mr Hulsker's opinion but most specialists now regret that the painting has not been bought by the State.
In doing so, Museum officials would have been in a position to make all possible researches to determine whether it is genuine. In case of a forgery the possibility would have been offered to them to challenge the validity of the sale and to get the 145 million FF back from Mr Walter. The Marie-Antoine casket, also classified as a national treasure, fetched 14,4 million FF (US $ 2,619 million) well under the price of 23 million FF paid by Jean-Marc Vernes in 1991. Meanwhile, an oil painting by Kees van Dongen, «Laila», went for 4,3 million FF (US $ 782,000) almost 10% above its high estimate.