LONDON – When writer Keith Tutt bought a painting said to be by Post-Impressionist painter Édouard Vuillard for £11,000 at a local auction, he knew he was taking a risk. Little did he realise the long road that lay ahead to authenticate this unknown work. Eventually determined to be Vuillard’s Femmes dans un restaurant, this painting will now go under the hammer in Sotheby’s London Impressionist & Modern Art Day sale on 4 February. To learn more about its fascinating story, here is an excerpt from an interview between Tutt and The Times' David Sanderson.


David Sanderson: What was your first encounter with the work of Édouard Vuillard?
Keith Tutt: My appreciation for Vuillard started back when I was doing my Art A-level, and I saw his painting of a grey marble mantelpiece. I was taken by the incredible atmosphere that it evoked. It lodged itself in my visual mind and stayed with me, and I decided around that time that if I could own a Vuillard, I would. Little did I know how hard that might be.

But you always kept an eye out…
Yes – Then in 2005 when I began painting again, I decided to copy a self-portrait by Vuillard. And my housemate asked whom it was by, and I told him, and he said, ‘Well, there’s a Vuillard at the local auction house.’ I thought that sounded extremely unlikely, but I had to go and see.

How was it presented in the auction?
On the frame was a little plaque that said ‘Vuillard.’ I didn’t know of any oval paintings by him at the time, but I looked at the painting and thought nobody else can paint objects or flowers like that. I found out later that it hadn’t been authenticated. At the time I didn’t understand about catalogue raisonnés, authentication committees or any of these things…that’s what the last nine years have taught me.

At the time I didn’t understand about catalogue raisonnés, authentication committees or any of these things…that’s what the last nine years have taught me.

And what an adventure it’s been! Can you explain how you went about proving the painting was genuine?
Previous owners of the painting had approached The Wildenstein Institute in Paris, who are in charge of authenticating works and publishing the catalogue raisonnés, and had been rejected. I found in the catalogue raisonné, which had only just been published, that Vuillard had painted another large oval, commissioned for the interior of Le Grand Teddy café in Paris which opened in 1919. It mentioned that Vuillard was working on two smaller paintings for the café, The Oysters and The Café, which were both thought to have been lost. I was sure that my painting was The Café because I knew the previous owner Mr Warren had owned two ovals, and the other showed a couple eating oysters. I contacted the owner of the large oval painting in Geneva and he agreed to meet me and show me the painting. On the back was an original label ‘A Robinot,’ a specialist art courier, and the same label was one on the back of my painting. The name Hessel was also on the back of both of our pictures. Jos Hessel was Vuillard’s dealer and friend.

So the evidence was stacking up?
Yes, but I realised that I had to make an absolute cast-iron case, with both forensic and documentary evidence. I saw the Fake or Fortune programme one evening on TV and that’s when I contacted the BBC. We sat around a table at Philip Mould’s gallery, and I could see they were pretty excited.


How did Fake or Fortune help your cause?
They found out that my painting had been exhibited in Amsterdam in 1926, and were able to track down the catalogue from the time, which listed a Vuillard titled Au restaurant belonging to M. Hessel. They also found a scrapbook of reviews from this show at the Stedelijk Museum which clearly described my painting. ‘The oval composition of a restaurant scene, a row of young women on a red couch in front of a yellow background, sitting at a table decorated with flowers, is characteristic for this intimate painter of modern life and one of the best works in the exhibition.”

With the help of the Courtauld Institute, Fake or Fortune carried out forensic tests on both my painting and the large oval in Geneva. The canvases were a complete match and both paintings had the same pigments and distemper, which is an animal glue that Vuillard used as a binder in a lot of his work. We also filled in the gaps in the provenance of the painting. Belinda Thomson – a leading Vuillard scholar presented our case to the committee.

How did it feel to have them unanimously acknowledge this work as a painting by Vuillard?
I think I went into shock – it had been a long and quite gruelling road. I felt vindicated. For me there was never a question, I knew this was a Vuillard, but now I genuinely felt that justice has been done, that this painting has come to rest in its proper place in the catalogue raisonné.