The discovery of a fifteenth-century masterpiece, concealed beneath afar more recent work and purchased for next to nothing in 1985, gave rise to a series of legal and moral conundra which were finally laid to rest more than 30 years later. The legal issues mainly centred on the question of whether or not the concealed masterpiece could be deemed to be 'treasure' within the meaning of the French Civil Code: if so, the owner would then have been required to share the proceeds of the sale of the painting with those who had enabled the discovery. Other issues included an analysis of the implied conditions under which dealers in art and antiques conduct their relationship when one dealer enables another to make a significant profit: is there a custom of the trade whereby compensation is normally paid in such circumstances? Or is it possible to apply the principles of unjust enrichment or quantum meruit to award a fair sum as compensation?
In 1985 the priest of the small town of Vic-le-Comte in central France needed to find the money to pay for repairs to the central heating in his church. He decided to sell a pile of objects, including an unremarkable religious painting dating from the eighteenth or nineteenth century, which had been lying around in the presbytery for some time. The objects were bought as a job lot by a dealer in second-hand goods for the equivalent of 500 euros. Having told the priest that he thought the painting was "ugly" ("moche") but that he might be able to sell the frame, the dealer strapped it to the roof of his car and drove home. He sold the other objects quite quickly, but didn't find a buyer for the painting. A local antiques dealer, more specialised in paintings, then examined the painting and discovered flecks of gold showing through the thick paint. He recommended that the painting be cleaned, and this cleaning revealed, beneath the rough religious eighteenth- or nineteenth-century painting, another, far older, painting probably dating from the fifteenth century. The first dealer then set about trying to determine the identity of the artist--a quest that would take more than thirteen years, during which time he was unable to afford insurance or a safe in which to keep the painting.
The painting (above), Christ of Mercy Supported by Saint John and Two Angels (Christ de Pitie Soutenu par Saint-Jean et Deux Anges) was in 1999 finally determined to be a work of the Dutch-French painter Jan Maelwael (or, in French, Jean Malouel, c. 1365--1415), only the third known work of this artist, the uncle of the Flemish Limbourg brothers. The Louvre's head of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century paintings stated that "We have seen only three or four paintings of this kind in a century. It is a shock!" (1)
OWNERSHIP OF THE PAINTING
The Louvre wished to acquire the painting and a price of 7.8 million euros was agreed. However, it was first necessary to resolve underlying doubts as to its ownership. There was no suggestion that the dealer had acquired the painting from the priest unlawfully. However, there was uncertainty as to whether the priest had the authority to sell it, or whether it belonged to the township. Under the Law of 9th December 1905 which...