Meet Eric Turquin, the sleuth-art historian who continues to find multimillion-dollar Old Masters hidden in plain sight
For Old Master experts, coming across a “sleeper,” that is, a lost or previously misattributed masterpiece, is a once-in-a-career event. But whenever you hear of a big stud earring sale in France, a particular name comes up again and again. That name is Eric Turquin, a 70-year-old specialist who has become a titan in the field.
Three years ago, Turquin was not well known outside the small world of old paintings. But that changed in 2019, when he discovered the Holy Grail, a previously unknown work by Caravaggio. Since then, it seems like the hits keep coming. That same year, an expert from his small but powerful Paris firm discovered a rare painting by Cimabue hanging over someone’s stove, which sold for $26.8 million. In June 2021, it was a Fragonard which had collected dust on the wall of an apartment before selling for $9.1 million.
Last month, a small auction house in Toulouse won $4 million on a long-lost Bernhard Strigel after a member of Turquin’s team recognized the subject as a pendant to another religious panel in the Louvre Abu Dhabi. When I called Turquin to talk about the Strigels, he had also just discovered a famous still life by Chardin, which should be sold at Artcuriel on March 23.
“We don’t have magic dust, but we have a working method that helps us make these discoveries,” Turquin told me over the phone. The secret? Team work.
Turquin’s handpicked team includes Philippine Motais from Narbonne, an academic trained in the world of auctions, Stephan Pinta, a seasoned restoration expert, as well as two researchers, three archivists and a fleet of five interns. Together, they carry out around 15,000 appraisals per year, charging a 5% commission on the sale of a lot. In 2021, the company made between 20 and 30 million euros.
“Of course we have a hunch and that’s very, very important. In math, people call that intuition,” Turquin said. to errors.”
The company works with approximately 350 small and medium auction houses that do not have in-house expertise. Pauline Maringe, owner of ArtPaugée, the Toulouse house that sold the Strigels, has worked with Turquin since she founded her company in 2018. “Cabinet Turquin is today one of the expertise firms in old paintings the best known in France,” she told Artnet. News, adding that its record in the French market is “unmatched”.
The company is all the more interesting because it does not deal with paintings, but simply with attributions. It was a game-changer for regional auction houses like his, who previously had to turn to a competitor like Christie’s or Hotel Drouot to authenticate a work, and who could race to win the sale. “Today, a painting of this quality can also sell well in provincial auction houses like ours, thanks to good communication and the possibility of online sales,” Maringe said.
Passport to success
Turquin, whose parents were farmers, was first introduced to collecting by his great-grandmother, who introduced him to stamps, then to silver and porcelain. As a teenager, he spent his summers in London browsing the Chelsea antiques market in search of treasures, before quickly moving on to sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. After studying at the prestigious École du Louvre in Paris, he trained as an auctioneer at Drouot.
Initially a specialist in contemporary art immersed in the vibrant Parisian art scene of the 1970s, Turquin decided to change categories, believing that this would give him a stronger position in the market. “I was struck by the fact that expertise in this field did not have the value and importance that it has in more difficult fields such as old drawings, paintings, manuscripts and sculptures”, did he declare. “You don’t need contemporary art experts. You need an eye, you need an art advisor, but you don’t need an expert. In Old Masters, believe me, you need experts. I need experts.
The pivot paid off and Turquin was taken over by Sotheby’s London in 1979, when the house was looking for an expert in French painting. There he studied under the best of the best specialists, including Philip Pouncey, the former curator of Italian drawings at the British Museum, Neil MacLaren, the former sub-curator of the National Gallery, and Derek Johns, who is still active today as a highly respected dealer. Turquin managed to work his way up from an entry-level position as a cataloguer to become head of the Old Master paintings department in 1985.
When he finally left Sotheby’s, he sold his flat in London and invested the proceeds – £150,000 at the time – in a treasure trove of art books by Thomas Heneage. He then undertook to recruit talents to start his own business in Paris in 1987. “Paintings, especially on the continent and especially in France, lose their attribution. They lose their story, they lose their passport, basically,” Turquin said. “And it’s our job to give them a new passport.”
Wheel of Fortune
The Caravaggio discovery that made his company an international name came at perhaps the most difficult time in Turquin’s decades-long career. The award was the result of what Turquin described as a five-year battle to persuade the field, including many longtime friends. “It was a very exhausting, very tiring and very energy-intensive process, but in the end a triumph,” he said.
If the ongoing saga over the $450 million Salvator Mundi awarded to Leonardo da Vinci has taught us anything, it’s that such opinions can divide even the most seasoned experts (and unqualified people often tend to weigh in when there is an exciting prize attached).
“There is something objective in painting. There’s the paint itself, the pigments, the oil, the panel or canvas, the signature,” Turquin said, “but what makes an image valuable is 100% subjective.”
Caravaggio’s victory transformed Turquin’s business from a small local French business into an international name. “In my opinion, Eric Turquin is one of the outstanding personalities of the art market, not only for the quality and the range of the works of art treated, but also for the research in which he and his team are engaged”, said said Keith Christiansen, the former chairman of the Department of European Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
For his part, Turquin is still incredulous: “If someone had told me three years ago that people would spend millions on photos based on my description without seeing them, I would not have believed it”, he said. -he declares. “But now they do.”
Success stories like Turquin’s make the old-fashioned old master market look sexy – a much-needed boost for the field as the old guard ages. Add to that decades of sleepy activity and complaints about a lack of supplies means youngsters have been deterred from entering the fray.
Turquin conceded that the Old Master market was “half dead” a decade ago, but has recovered in the past five years. This has indeed been accelerated by confinement, and the improvement of access to online sales, which has brought down the barriers to entry for collectors. Today, Turquin sees new buyers entering the market: “They are much younger, with a totally different approach to painting, and money too,” he says. “I am very optimistic for the market.
These new buyers often come from the contemporary art market, where the approach to collecting is not as different as one might think. Aficionados of contemporary art and old masters are bargain hunters who want to make a discovery. “There is a notion of commitment when you buy a contemporary artist, because you bet on him. You bet on him. You bet on him,” Turquin said. “You have the same thing with the old masters. People have always bought Old Masters because they disputed the attribution, or they disputed that this school of painting was forgotten and really should be worth more.
Addressing questions about the market’s lack of supply, Turquin listed several periods in history when the market was suddenly flooded, including the early 20th century when the Nazis in Germany and the Soviets in Russia began selling museum properties.
“Who would have thought, in 1914, that the paintings of Catherine II would arrive on the market? Not only did they hit the market, they came in their hundreds,” Turquin said. “And who would have thought, just 15 years ago, that there would be so many photos looted during World War II coming back to market, sold by their rightful owners?”
With such a potential inventory, Tuquin added, there is a high demand for expertise and he sees plenty of opportunities for his young interns. Meanwhile, he is beefing her own business to ensure she will survive her retirement. But he is reluctant to quit his job just yet. It is the curse of all those who are passionate about their profession. As Turqion put it succinctly: “I can’t do anything else in life.”
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