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1. Discovery

In July 2022, I received a call from an old friend whom I hadn’t seen or heard from in years.  During the 1980’s he and I had worked in the same office, but he ultimately left to take other jobs that took him farther and farther away.  We remained in touch intermittently until about 2006 when I lost track of him – until the call.  He explained that he was now living in American Samoa, had moved there in 2016 to take a new job, and, enjoying island life, he expected to be there indefinitely.  He then asked me if I might be able to help him and a friend pursue a project that he had left behind in New England.

He told me that just before leaving for the South Pacific, he and this friend had visited an antique dealer in Connecticut and had seen in his inventory what appeared to be an unrecorded painting by Paul Cézanne.  The dealer, aware of the attribution, said that his deceased partner (a specialist in whaling antiques) had found the picture some years previously at an estate sale on Nantucket and had discovered its Cézanne association (fig. 1).  The painting, unsigned and in neglected condition, was an almost exact duplicate of the artist’s famous seascape “Le Golfe de Marseille vu de L’Estaque,” now in the Musée d’Orsay (RF 2761) in Paris, which the artist painted in 1878-1879 (fig. 2).  In Cézanne’s online catalogue raisonné [CR] [www.cezannecatalogue.com], now commonly known as “FWN” after the initials of its committee members Walter Feilchenfeldt, Jayne Warman, and David Nash, [1] this painting has been assigned the number “FWN 119,” by which I will refer to it here.[2]

At first, the two suspected that the painting was some kind of mechanical reproduction of the other, but close examination revealed that it was an original, unrestored painting, about the same age as the other with a seemingly identical composition.  If this were an original painting, they realized, it would be difficult to imagine anyone other than Cézanne being the artist. The dealer, never able to overcome the skepticism of the art historians he showed it to, had been unable to sell it.  After carefully examining the painting and convincing themselves it was genuine, the two friends then pooled their resources and bought it for $10,000 – an enormous price if the painting were “wrong,” but “small change” if the painting were “right.”

Fig. 1. The painting said to have been found on Nantucket in its condition as found.
Fig. 2:  Paul Cézanne,“Le Golfe de Marseille vu de l’Estaque,”  Musée d’Orsay, Paris (RF 2761).  (Identified in the CR as “FWN 119”)

Since the two acquired the painting just before my friend’s departure for Samoa, they agreed to put it in storage until his return to the States.  Then, in July 2022, still without any immediate plans to return, my friend called me and asked if I could help them research the painting, to establish its authenticity (if possible), to solicit opinions from Cézanne scholars, to find the right paintings conservator to clean it, to determine that it had not been reported lost or stolen, and ultimately to investigate how they might sell it. He then sent me pictures of the painting and introduced me to his friend, the other owner, who, I learned, lived only 90 minutes from me.  We then met cordially for lunch, and afterwards he retrieved the painting for me so that I could have a look at it.

Up to that point I had remained doubtful about the picture.  After all, what are the chances of anyone finding a genuine Cézanne “on the street”?  But when I saw it, I, too, became seduced by it and realized that it was potentially very important.  Everything about it seemed correct.  Because of its neglected condition, darkened varnish, and lack of a signature (Cézanne almost never signed his works), forgery seemed out of the question.  There seemed no attempt to deceive here.  By comparing it with photos of the painting in Paris, it was at once clear that the two works were almost exact duplicates, but the new painting had been done on paper and appeared to be a preparatory oil sketch for the other.  Both also featured patterns of short, diagonal brushstrokes, which are a signature trait of Cezanne’s painterly technique.  Assuming the Nantucket provenance to be correct (and there seemed no reason to doubt it), how, we wondered, did it get to the island?  Who could have brought it there and when?  What was its ultimate origin?  How had it become forgotten? As a research project, this one was irresistible, and, as it turned out, one of the most exciting I have ever been involved with.

[1] The FWN online catalogue is formally titled The Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings of Paul Cézanne, and it is a magnificent work.  For an important review of FWN and earlier catalogues of Cézanne’s works, see Clayton Press, Paul Cézanne: Redux and Renewal of His Catalogue Raisonné (Forbes; Arts; Feb. 26, 2019). https://www.forbes.com/sites/claytonpress/2019/02/26/paul-cezanne-redux-and-renewal-of-his-catalogue-raisonne/?sh=78bc807a2c80.  A second catalogue of Cézanne’s paintings, with downloadable images (unlike FWN), can also be found online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_paintings_by_Paul_Cézanne.
[2] For full data relating to this painting, see:  https://www.cezannecatalogue.com/catalogue/entry.php?id=386.