Last week, Jean Siméon Chardin’s Basket of Wild Strawberries (1761) sold at an Artcurial auction to New York art dealer Adam Williams for $26.8 million—a record for the artist.
That is, until the Louvre decided it wanted the painting. Though the museum lacked the sufficient funds to purchase the painting during the auction, it has since blocked the sale on the grounds that it is a national treasure, thanks to French law.
It is, after all, Chardin’s only depiction of strawberries.
Once a piece has been declared a national treasure in France, the state can block the sale of a piece for two and a half years. A similar move was employed in 2019 when Rembrandt’s The Standard Bearer (1636) was due to go up for sale. In the case of the Rembrandt, the painting didn’t ultimately go up for auction and museums were given first refusal.
The declaration of a work as a national treasure is often used in Europe to prevent the sale and export of important pieces.
In Spain, collector Jaime Botín has been entangled in legal trouble after he attempted to export Picasso’s Head of a Young Woman (1906) out of the country after it had been declared a national treasure. Other countries will simply ban export without the national treasure status.
Recently, the U.K. banned the export of Joshua Reynold’s Portrait of Omai (1776) after the the U.K.’s Export Reviewing Committee said the work was of “outstanding significance” and “a signal work in the study of colonialism and empire, scientific exploration and the history of the Pacific.”
In the case of the Chardin, the Louvre must find the funds to purchase Basket of Wild Strawberries. Whereas the artist’s previous maximum price was $8 million, this work attracted an enormous bidding war. The problem is, they might not have the funds. The Museum allocates about 20 percent of ticket sales to their acquisitions budget, and typically are able to raise about $6 million–$7 million a year, according to the Art Newspaper.
Even after a couple good years, it is unlikely that would generate enough to purchase the record-breaking painting. But with visitorship decimated by the pandemic over the past few years, they have even less resources at their disposal.
Plus, the Louvre already has 41 Chardins in their collection. Do they really need one more?