Worth a Hoot: Caspar David Friedrich's "Owl" Sells for $8.5 Million

Worth a Hoot: Caspar David Friedrich's "Owl" Sells for $8.5 Million
Detail of Caspar David Friedrich's "Owl on a Tree"
(Courtesy DR)

In February 2010, an anonymous painting of an owl in a bare tree, with a cloudy sky in the background, appeared in the online catalogue of a Cannes auction house. It was mixed in with bric-a-brac from various local estates and estimated at a modest €100 ($135). When Parisian dealers Bertrand Talabardon and Bertrand Gautier saw the painting online, they recognized it as German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich's "Owl in a Tree." The small canvas, measuring ten by twelve and a half inches, was given or sold by Friedrich to French sculptor David d'Angers in 1834, but later all trace of it was lost. With other bidders responding to their enthusiasm, Talabardon and Gautier acquired the painting for €350,000 ($475,000) — a huge leap from its estimated value, but still far less than the €6.5 million ($8.5 million) that it is now worth.

It reads like a dealer's dream, but the story doesn't end there. The following month, the two dealers received a notice from the auction house stating that the sale had been canceled. The spike in the price had made auctioneer Julien Pichon and the seller aware of the painting's potential higher value. French law allows a seller to cancel a sale if there is "error on the substance" of the object. Art blogger Didier Rykner criticized the move in La Tribune de l'Art, writing that the dealers "acquired the painting in a public sale thanks to their knowledge, taking all the risks" upon themselves, especially since they had only seen it online. If the painting had turned out not to be a Friedrich, he asked, "would the seller reimburse them? Obviously not."

Instead of going to court, the two parties have now resolved the situation amicably, with the seller and the dealers deciding to share ownership in the painting equally. "My client recognized the dealers' merit in having discovered the work and given it a value," the seller's lawyer, Geoffroy Gaultierrecently told the Journal des Arts. The painting is eligible for the status of national treasure, which establishes a 30-month export ban. A French collector has purchased it for €6.5 million, although for one year the Louvre has the right to acquire the work for the same sum if it raises the funds.