A collector won a decisive court battle against the French state which had prevented him from selling a Van Gogh painting at its real value.
Jacques Walter, whose family had already donated to French museums some I44 paintings, mostly by Cezanne, Renoir, Modigliani, Matisse, Miro or Picasso, wanted to sell a Van Gogh painting, "Jardin à Auvers" (Garden in Auvers), in I982 but the French Culture ministry refused to deliver the export license he was hoping for. Instead, the painting was listed as "national treasury" and such decision meant that it could not leave the country if sold.
The Van Gogh was eventually auctioned at 55 million FF
(11 million dollars), three times less than its normal international art market value because of this export restriction. Rather outraged, Jacques Walter sued the French state for damage and a civil court ruled in his favour in March 1994. Facing a 422 million F (84 million dollar) compensation, the French Treasury immediately appealed against this decision.
The Court of Appeal later confirmed the ruling however reducing the compensation to 145 million F (29 million dollar).
The French Treasury's last option was to go before the Supreme Court of Appeal which has finally ruled against the state on February I9th.
The importance of the ruling is that it now constitutes a precedent regarding all other court disputes of this kind. The Walter family told the French newspaper le Figaro that the ruling was a victory for citizens resisting state exactions via a 1941 law stipulating that any important work of art cannot be exported without official authorisation. The law thus led to many abuses from museum authorities at the expense of collectors while export restrictions eventually resulted in Paris losing its leading position on the art market in the late sixties.
It is a fact that the 1941 law voted under the Nazi occupation of France was unfair to collectors whose merits were to discover artists long before they reached fame. Their findings face sometimes a drop in value of more than 50% if listed as national treasuries.
Collectors have also accused museum officials of being rather inefficient and claimed that they often lacked the necessary flair to spot emerging talents. As a result, state funds were somewhat misused as top prices were paid by museums to acquire the works of those artists who had already reached international stature. Adrian Darmon