A $26.8 Million Painting of Strawberries Smashed Records, but Now It’s Stuck in Legal Limbo in France

The Louvre wants to claim the 18th-century French still life as a national treasure

The Basket of Wild Strawberries
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin painted The Basket of Wild Strawberries in 1761. Artcurial

In 1761, French artist Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin painted a serene scene: a wicker basket brimming with luscious red strawberries next to a glass of water, two white carnations, a peach and two cherries.

Now, though, his peaceful oil-on-canvas painting The Basket of Wild Strawberries is at the center of a stormy dispute between an art museum in Texas, which says it owns the artwork, and the Louvre, which claims it’s a national treasure that belongs in France.

In March, New York art dealer Adam Williams won the still life painting at auction for a record-breaking $26.8 million (€24.4 million) at the Artcurial auction house in Paris. As it turns out, he was bidding on behalf of a client, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

But, at least for the time being, the work remains stuck in France, report Le Figaro’s Claire Bommelaer and Béatrice de Rochebouët. The Louvre, the country’s national museum and art gallery, wants to purchase the piece for its collection and classify it a national treasure—effectively placing a freeze on the painting’s transfer to the U.S. under French law. The national treasure claim means the canvas can be kept in France for up to 30 months while the Louvre raises money to buy it.

Laurence des Cars, the Louvre’s president and director, told Le Figaro the museum was fully committed to the purchase.

The Louvre may turn to one of its sponsors, energy company TotalEnergies, to help acquire the piece, reports the Art Newspaper France’s Olga Grimm-Weissert.

The Louvre’s bid did not come as a surprise to Eric Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum, who understood that the piece may get tied up in legal limbo when he bought it. And whether the Louvre eventually acquires the painting or it makes its way to Texas, Lee said he’d be glad for it to be accessible to the public either way.

“This painting is worth waiting for, even if we consider the Louvre may finally obtain it,” Lee tells the Art Newspaper France. “It’s a win-win in every sense as a public collection will acquire the work.”

It had been in private hands for more than a century before being sold, said Artcurial in a statement.

The Louvre already has more than 40 Chardin pieces in its collection and is grappling with budget losses from the lack of tourists during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Lee agrees that the work is a French national treasure, but also points out to the New York Times’ Laura Zornosa that it could “serve as an ambassador of French culture” in the United States.

Kimbell Art Museum
The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, paid $26 million for The Basket of Wild Strawberries. Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Born in Paris in 1699, Chardin spent his entire life in the City of Light, where he apprenticed under historical painters Pierre-Jacques Cazes and Noël Coypel. He later shifted his focus to still life and genre subjects, producing “some of the greatest works of art in the 18th century,” according to the National Gallery of Art.

During his lifetime, Chardin rose from an obscure painter to a member of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which accepted him the day of his application and designated him a painter of “animals and fruit.” Revered as a master of his form, he lived in the Louvre itself—and died there in 1779.

Though he often depicted plums, peaches, melons and other fruits, The Basket of Wild Strawberries is Chardin’s only still life that focuses on strawberries, per Artcurial. When Chardin exhibited the piece in 1761, it did not attract much attention, but today has become “one of the most famous and emblematic images of the French 18th century,” according to the auction house.

As buyers drove up the price of the painting at the Artcurial auction in March—smashing the estimated sale price by $12 million—the bidding “drew gasps in the sales room,” according to Artnet’s Amah-Rose Abrams. Museumgoers, too, will have to hold their breath to see where the acclaimed still life eventually lands.