The small town of Mas-d’Agenais has found its treasure: a Christ on the cross dating from 1631 which had been taken from it for 6 years due to security problems.
Alarms, video surveillance, armored window, “we put the package”: in Lot-et-Garonne, the village of Mas-d’Agenais has just recovered its municipal treasure, a painting “invaluable” by Rembrandt, of which he is the proud owner, almost by accident. From her tea room, Béatrice Touton has “immediately understood” seeing the rental van in front of the church: “I said to myself ‘this time, he’s coming back’, everyone was asking for him!” He is the 391-year-old village star, the Christ on the cross of Rembrandt (1606-1669) back, six years after his exile in Bordeaux because of a failing showcase.
History has made this village of 1,500 souls in the market garden and fruit attic of Lot-et-Garonne, the unlikely owner of a painting painted by the Dutch master in 1631, when he was 25 years old. A work of 100 x 73 cm “exceptional”, because through it, “Rembrandt will renew the codes of the representation of Christ, showing a being in agony, puny and miserable”, comments Aude Claret, Curator of Historic Monuments at Drac Nouvelle-Aquitaine.
It all started in 1804, when a captain of the Napoleonic armies, a native of the village, Xavier Duffour, acquired the painting, without an apparent signature, at an auction in Dunkirk before donating it to the parish the following year. A century later, the work became the property of the municipality during the separation of Church and State. It was classified as a Historic Monument in 1918 but was not authenticated until 1959 when a restoration at the Louvre unearthed the illustrious signature: RHL, for Rembrandt Harmenszoon of Leiden. In 2011, he was loaned to the Louvre for the Rembrandt and the Figure of Christ exhibition.
For decades, it was exhibited to the eyes of sometimes distant visitors, sometimes in a simple wooden cupboard, then in a display case, but “without any kind of high security”. “Anyone could have nicked him,” summarizes Mayor Claude Lagarde. A Rembrandt neither in a museum nor with a collector but in a town, “it’s very rare”, assures Aude Claret. The work “is associated with the village, so it is very important that it returns to where it has been since the XIXand century”.
“The richest town in France”
For months now, the State and the village have been discreetly preparing the transfer of the Rembrandt from its temporary showcase in the Saint-André cathedral in Bordeaux to its new setting in Mas-d’Agenais in the Romanesque collegiate church.
Packed with a luxury of precautions in a wooden box, between several layers of foam to avoid “thermal shock”, the painting made the trip incognito aboard a van escorted by an unmarked police car. The town hall and the Drac have “put the package” to offer him a new ultra-secure showcase reproducing the natural ventilation to which he has always been accustomed.
He is “remarkably solid, it’s amazing”, observes Christian Morin who supervises with his wife Françoise, a restaurateur like him, the “matter” of the painting for 20 years and will still visit it regularly in its armored case. The development of the security system including cameras “everywhere”, sensors and alarms, should thus “reassure a little” the mayor, still impressed by the potential value of municipal assets.
In 2021, an auction house interviewed by the newspaper South West had estimated it at 90 million euros – the equivalent of 70 years of budget at Mas-d’Agenais. “We are the richest municipality in France, except that we do not have the means”, amuses the aedile.
“It is an important religious painting, a range of several tens of millions of euros does not seem abnormal to me”, confirms to AFP Olivier Lefeuvre, director of the Old and 19th Century Paintings departmentand century at Sotheby’s. Such an object classified as a Historic Monument is“invaluable” and has in fact “not intended to be sold”, insists Ms. Claret. The community doesn’t even think about it. The enhancement of the painting in a freshly renovated church will “strengthen its tourist attractiveness”, emphasizes Arnaud Petit, elected to finance and heritage.
When the painting arrives, in a religious silence, a member of the welcoming committee slips: “It’s moving to see him come back”.