“Sometimes the greatest discoveries are hidden in plain view”. Interview with Joseph Friedman regarding the discovery of Le Brun painting at Hôtel Ritz, Paris

   |  25 January 2013  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Paris, 25 January 2013, Art Media Agency (AMA).

Art Media Agency previously wrote about the most valuable painting by 17th Century French painter Le Brun that was discovered by chance at the Hôtel Ritz, Paris, and is to be offered on sale by Christie’s auction house on 15 April 2013. As a fine-art consultant, Mr Joseph Friedman plays a major role in the renovation of the iconic hotel – a position which led him and a group of experts to perform the astounding discovery. AMA had the pleasure of hearing about the eventful finding from Mr Friedman himself right before he caught a flight to New York, in order to present the artwork at an exceptional preview to be held at Christie’s this weekend.

Art Media Agency (AMA): What role do you play in the renovation of the Hôtel Ritz as a fine-art consultant?

Joseph Friedman (J.F.): My task is two-fold, first to catalogue the hotel’s collection of historical artifacts and archives, and second to advise on the acquisition of additional works of art, furniture, and objects that will enhance the existing collection prior to the re-opening in 2014

AMA: Who commissioned the inventory of the hotel’s furniture?

J.F.: I was appointed by the owner, Mohamed Al Fayed, for whom I worked as Curator of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s residence in Paris and whom I have advised for some years.

AMA: When had the last inventory been requested before this one began?

J.F.: My task is not to produce a complete inventory of the hotel, but to catalogue the more important contents. Previous inventories did not have this specific focus.

AMA: How did the discovery of the Le Brun painting occur? Although you recognised Le Brun’s style very quickly, how did you overcome the astounding incongruity of such a discovery?

J.F.: I first came face to face with the picture while visiting the Coco Chanel suite as part of a tour of the principal rooms. I was immediately struck by the quality of the picture, by the brilliant handling of line, colour, movement, and composition. The picture was clearly the work of a 17th-century French master steeped in the values of academic painting and with a profound knowledge of Classical Antiquity and the work of Nicolas Poussin. But who? It was my colleague Wanda Tymowska who first suggested Le Brun, and as we set about examining the picture she quickly discovered the inscription ‘C.L.B.F. 1647’, which we immediately realised could stand for ‘Charles Le Brun Fecit’, with the date potentially placing the picture among the artist’s earliest major works, painted when he was barely 27 years old and only recently returned to France from Rome. A search of the standard sources revealed no mention of the picture, ruling out the possibility that it might be a copy or re-working of a known original, and suggesting instead that it might be an unknown painting by the artist himself, which despite hanging in the hotel for many years had somehow gone unnoticed. At this point we turned to Christie’s, whose Old Master paintings specialists in Paris, Olivier Lefeuvre and Head of department Cécile Bernard, were sufficiently confident to call in a succession of experts on Le Brun from the French museum world, all of whom pronounced it a fully autograph masterpiece by the artist and a remarkable new addition to his known oeuvre and to the study of 17th-century French painting.

AMA: What role did you play in identifying the author of the painting?

J.F.: Although I was the first to spot the picture and to realise its potential, this was very much a collaborative effort, as explained above.

AMA: Is there really no clue whatsoever as to how the painting got to Coco Chanel’s suite in the first place?

J.F.: We have searched the hotel archives, which date back to its very origins, and contain an extensive and diverse collection of visual and documentary records, but the evidence is lacking to explain how the picture came to be hanging in the Coco Chanel suite, which only adds to the mystery and drama of its discovery.

AMA: How could such a masterpiece have remained unnoticed for so long?

J.F.: To quote Christie’s, sometimes the greatest discoveries are hidden in plain view.

AMA: What made you decide to show the painting to Christie’s?

J.F.: There is a close relationship between Christie’s and the hotel’s owner dating back some years

AMA: Which museum or institution do you believe would be eligible to acquire the painting?

J.F.: I believe this is a picture for any major institution with a collection of 17th-century French art, or one seeking to build such a collection. The quality and importance are such that it could hold its own in even the greatest public museums.

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