4.05.2014

Recovered Art: The Man Who Lived with a Gauguin 40 Years in his Kitchen

We've all heard of the amazing story of the recovery of two famous paintings by Gauguin and Bonnard whose traces had been lost since an auction sale in 1964. They were bought in 1975 by an Italian worker at a state auction held by the Italian Railways for the modest sum of 45,000 Lire (about $100) - actual value: around $10-15 million, the Gauguin is worth about ten times the Bonnard. They have hung ever since in the worker's kitchen - or so it was written up with glee in the blogsphere and the traditional media alike, the New York Times included (see here).

The Italian Carabinieri that are tasked with the defense of cultural patrimony recently reported on it, earning the compliments of the Italian Minister of Culture:

Minister Franceschini and Carabinieri General Mariano Mossa at press conference, 2 April 2014 (afp)
The paintings are truly beautiful. Here's the Gauguin, titled Fruits sur une table ou nature morte au petit chien:


And here's the Bonnard called La femme aux deux fauteuils:


Imagine living with such splendor for 40 years! The press says the guy put it in his kitchen - that sounds a lot more newsworthy - but it is not fair. He put it in his living room and as he was a simple blue-collar worker, the living room had a kitchen corner, he couldn't afford more...

In fact, I got curious about this man. And I discovered a few things about him in the Italian newspapers (see here and here). He is now 70 years old, retired and lives in his hometown, Syracuse, Sicily (a beautiful town I know well, it's my husband's hometown too).

His name is Nicolà, and like so many southerners of his generation, he spent his life working "in the North", in Turin, doing long night shifts in a Fiat factory. But unlike his fellow workers, he didn't spend his money on booze in bars but liked to save it to participate in the yearly auction of "lost objects" organized by the Italian Railways, in that "beautiful room behind the train station of Porta Nova", as he put it. 

He still remembers that morning in the spring of 1975 when he bought the paintings. A beautiful sunny day, he was 34 years old and full of hope. He particularly wanted the Bonnard and counted on getting both paintings at the lowest possible price - obviously with a monthly salary of 200,000 Lire, he couldn't afford high prices. The two paintings hadn't been recognized as valuable - indeed, at the auction they were thought of as "trash", they were expected to go around 50,000 Lire. No one made a bid at the first turn and his hopes were high that he might make a killing at the second turn, starting at 40,000 Lire. Unfortunately someone suddenly woke up and started bidding. He had to fight for them, with hikes of 500 Lire at every turn. He finally got them for 45,000 Lire, a quarter of his monthly salary, quite a lot for him.

He didn't have any idea of the value of these paintings, until much later, when his son, 15 years old at the time, who loved the paintings too, got interested. He thought he could read the signature in one of them, the Bonnard, and deciphered "Bonnato", which of course got him nowhere. Later, when he was studying architecture (yes, Italian society does have social upward mobility!), he bought a Bonnard biography and discovered a picture of Bonnard's garden that was exactly like the garden in the painting his father had bought. 

Father and son contacted the Italian Art Bureau (Sovrintendenza) to no avail, they were turned away and told that their story was "impossible" and they shouldn't waste their time with it. Only the Carabinieri listened to them. That is how it was discovered that the paintings belonged to a wealthy couple who lived in London and who had died since without heirs. 

Obviously, at this point father and son are hoping no heir will ever be found and that they can recover the paintings for their living room - as of now, they are under the Carabinieri's custody. After all, Nicolò bought the paintings in good faith from a State auction, and he bought them because he loved them...The best reason to buy art!

One wonders whether in future lost conceptual art would find the same fate. Some of it, yes, as long as it is art meant to please and comfort. Unfortunately, too much of contemporary art is meant to astonish and shock, not exactly the sort of thing you'd want to have in your living room, let alone your kitchen... 

But of course, that's what Picasso always said of his own work: that he would never want to have a painting of his hanging in someone's living room. There was this deep "hatred of the bourgeois" (especially bourgeois living rooms!)  that has been transmitted to most young artists today. Personally, I think that's a shame. When you come across the love of art in simple people, like in this case, it's quite simply a wonderful, moving experience that restores one's faith in humanity. The love of Beauty is the one thing that sets humans apart from animals...

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