A stolen painting

This is a story about two men, a painter and a thief.

A few boats and boatsheds on the shoreline – I’ve known this painting all my life.

The pale green shed catches the eye, its paintbox colour setting off the yellows of the sand. Several fishing boats lie on the beach, and the one in the foreground has been turned upside down.

Untitled beach scene, signed Picart Le Doux ’38

The painter was Charles Alexandre Picart le Doux, 1881-1959.

My father stole this painting.

It’s a long story, one that he told more than once, the details changing a little each time.

David McNicoll, 1914-2000, a war correspondent for the Sydney Daily Telegraph, covered the D-Day landings of 6 June 1944. He crossed the Channel to Normandy with Canadian troops, anchoring near “Gold” beach, Bernieres-sur-mer. Journalists were not allowed to land during the assault on the beaches, so they watched from the ship. The noise of low-flying aircraft, gunfire, cannons and bombs was terrifying. Dozens of badly wounded men were brought back to the ship – the Hilary‘s dining room became a hospital.

Fighting moved inland, and the correspondents went ashore. Corpses lay everywhere, Germans and allies alike. Fifty young Canadians, newly dead, lay neatly lined up on the sand, their wounds barely visible. It was a sight my father could never forget.

Such was his first visit to France.

Some days after the landing a small group of journalists followed Allied soldiers into the newly-liberated Nazi headquarters in Cherbourg. I don’t know whether the German HQ was a town hall or a big villa, but my father always described it as a big place, “stuffed with loot.” Occupying officers had surrounded themselves with the best of French furniture, glassware, ornaments and paintings. “Very good taste, some beautiful pictures,” my father remembered in a 1989 interview.

At this point in the story he would point out that soldiers around him were helping themselves to what they saw as Nazi loot. Sometimes he said, “The Canadians were stuffing gold candelabra into their pockets hand over fist.” In a 1989 interview with Tim Bowden he said that G.I.’s were slicing paintings out of their frames.

It was a free-for-all.

My father told Tim Bowden that he knocked the picture out of its frame, removed the nails, and folded it as tightly as he could so that he could carry it in his kitbag. Several years later he had it framed in Sydney, where it hung on a wall until his death in 2000. At some stage he discovered that Charles Picart Le Doux was quite well known in France.

He made no attempt to return the painting, but in 1989, asked about its provenance, he no longer gloated about Nazi loot. “Probably belonged to some poor unfortunate Frenchman,” he admitted.

Over the years David McNicoll bought a number of paintings. All Australian, they looked at home with the Le Doux. The light, the colours, the informal composition, the subtle details – perhaps the stolen painting was the keystone to my father’s taste, and possibly mine as well. If you put the stolen painting in an exhibition of Sydney Moderns, people would take it for a Roland Wakelin.

Charles Le Doux, born in Paris, studied at the Beaux-Arts de Paris before going to live in Montmartre, where he made friends with many other artists including Suzanne Valadon, her son Maurice Utrillo, Charles Vildrac, Jules Romains and Georges Duhamel. He began exhibiting in 1904 and had his first one-man show in 1910.

Serving as a medical orderly in World War I, Le Doux witnessed many horrors near the frontline. By the time peace came, he was a committed pacifist, and suffering deep depression. Soon he renewed his focus on work. He resolved to let his subject matter dictate form and style. He would “oublier la technique” – abandon technical theory.

The 1920s were good to him. His paintings were on show in galleries in Paris, San Francisco, New York, Rio de Janeiro, London, Berlin and Munich. He moved to Montmartre; some of his paintings were acquired by national museums.

His output included landscapes, portraits and designs. In 1938 he painted the untitled beach scene with fishing boats, probably on site in Brittany or Normandy.

During the World War II Le Doux lived in Tours and painted nearly 100 portraits. After the war he resumed work as a professor of painting in Paris, and accepted a number of commissions to illustrate books or decorate buildings. He wrote poetry and continued to paint. Two of his sons were artists, one of them, Jean, becoming well known for tapestry designs.

Charles Le Doux died in 1959 aged 79. His paintings still sell at auction, for fairly modest prices. His contemporaries, Matisse and Picasso, took painting in new directions. Le Doux was neither a pioneer nor one of the big names.

After my father died in 2000, my brother and I sold his paintings, each keeping a few favourites. I grabbed the boat scene – fortunately it was not one my brother had his eye on.

In 2001 I contacted Australia’s cultural liaison officer at the Paris Embassy, outlining the story I’ve just told, and asking if there was a restitution program under which I should return the painting. She said that she would make enquiries, but that if I heard nothing further, I could enjoy the painting with a clear conscience.

I heard no more about it.

Do I enjoy the painting? Yes and no. In the last year of my father’s life the painting acquired a couple of noticeable scratches, visible above and below the black boat. Unsure what to do about restoration, I’ve done nothing. And I have to confess to slight disappointment that nothing came of my approach to the Embassy. It would have been an adventure to take the painting to a gallery in Cherbourg or a descendant of the painter’s.

Now travel is out of the question for the foreseeable future.

The painting can’t be sold. An online French auction house gives three conditions for sale. The work must be authentic. Yes, it is. It must be in good condition. No, it isn’t. And finally, its provenance must be impeccable.

Hmmm – a big black cross for that one. The provenance is fascinating, but it’s far from impeccable.

I am left with a lot of what-ifs. What if the painter and the thief had ever met? Would they have got on well? Would they have marvelled at the contrast between this peaceful scene and the bloodbath on the selfsame beaches that my father witnessed? Would the wartime thief have bought a Le Doux or two legitimately?

What if someone develops a vaccine fast, and I turn up in Cherbourg one day in the future with a big brown paper parcel?

What if, what if, what if….


A note on sources

Tim Bowden’s interview with David McNicoll is an audio recording on the Australian War Memorial’s site, awm.gov.au/collection/C235674

Wikipedia has a biography of Charles Picart Le Doux; he and his son Jean feature on many French art sites.

Google “auction results Charles Picart Le Doux” to see many more of his paintings.

Finally, my thanks to David Burden for untangling a tricky French phrase.


One thought on “A stolen painting

  1. What a story and so well told. You got the ‘tone’ just right. And what a painting. I’ll look at it differently next time I visit but I share the urge to have it on my wall and can understand why your father was motivated to take it. Interesting how the assumption of ‘Nazi loot’ changed over time to ‘stolen from the French etc.’ That personal transition must have reflected a global one but I can’t quite place when it began – the sixties perhaps? Or even the seventies? After the publication of previously secret war stories which began in the fifties. In 1944 there was no knowledge of how the Germans had systematically stripped valuable cultural objects from people and institutions across Europe.
    Altogether fascinating and thought provoking.


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