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First case for France’s new auction watchdog as it acts over suspected fake paintings
FRANCE’S new auction watchdog has flexed its muscles for the first time, banning two paintings – one attributed to Van Gogh, the other to Toulouse-Lautrec – from sale on suspicion of being fakes.

Both works were authenticated by private experts but questioned by museum authorities. Despite the doubts over authenticity, the bans were made on a technicality. In each case the Conseil des Ventes (the regulatory body introduced to oversee France’s auction reform and apply its rules) intervened after the auctioneers failed to secure adequate insurance cover as specified by France’s Code de Commerce, which calls on auction firms to be insured for an amount equal to the price of the works they sell. “Exceptional sales require exceptional guarantees,” said Conseil chairman Gérard Champin, who insists the Conseil’s intervention did not imply judgment on the works’ authenticity. He did, however, state that “all competent parties must be consulted before engaging lightly on a course of action that might prove risky.”

A giant 9ft x 6ft (2.7 x 1.9m) canvas attributed to Toulouse-Lautrec, entitled Toulouse-Lautrec au Bal du Moulin Rouge and showing a crowd of figures, including La Goulue and Toulouse-Lautrec himself, was due to be sold by Robert Féraud (France Enchères Art) in Montauban, near Toulouse, on December 9.

The picture was once owned by the painter Lucien Mainssieux (1885-1958) and authenticated by Louis Barbier, director of the Institut Toulouse-Lautrec in Courtenay, south of Paris. But Danièle Devynck, Curator of the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi, which has the world’s largest collection of works by the artist, claims the work is a fake, and had been turned down when offered to the museum after Mainssieux’s death.

Barbier has accused the museum of leading a “cabal” against the work, which was to be offered at €3m – although auctioneer Robert Féraud told the Antiques Trade Gazette that he was hoping for €8m-10m, such was the interest.

The second work to be withdrawn at the last minute was a small oil on panel attributed to Van Gogh of two horses and a peasant with plough.

Laboureurs was due to be sold on December 13 in Portets, near Bordeaux, by Maison de Ventes Européenne de Conseil under the gavel of Eric Le Blay, with a starting price of €2m.

Sale expert Benoît Landais claimed the work was painted by Van Gogh in the Drenthe region of north-east Holland in November 1883 and mentioned in a letter to his brother Theo dated February 13 1884. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has so far refused to substantiate that claim, but are believed to have contacted the auctioneers shortly before the sale with an offer to re-examine the work.

The painting was said to have been acquired by the consignor at the Paris flea market in 1991 for around £1000.

In each case, the auctioneers hope to establish the works’ authenticity and reoffer them for sale at a future date.