Art History Mystery

 © Pixabay 

10 May 2021  |  Culture

Art History Mystery

In the afternoon of Wednesday, October 31st 1979, Christian Villambard visited a small antiques store on rue du Pont Vieux in the old quarter of Nice. Rue du Pont Vieux is a narrow pedestrian street that runs off the square where the impressive 17th Cathédrale Sainte-Réparate is situated. Monsieur Villambard introduced himself to Jean-François Boissonade, the owner of the antiques store and asked if he may be interested in purchasing some items of 19th century furniture. An appointment was arranged and Jean-François Boissonade presented himself at the home of Christian Villambard on nearby rue Benoît Bunico the following week. The items of furniture and other sundry items were of interest to Boissonade. He asked about a small picture hanging in the hallway.

Art History Mystery

What did Monsieur Villambard know about the picture ? Villambard said that he had bought it in a café in Sainte-Maxime about seven years previously from a man who was peddling various artworks to the patrons of the café sitting on the sunny terrace. Villambard said he had no real interest in the picture, but was happy to pay 150 francs to the man who looked as though he needed some money. Subsequently, Villambard's daughter had always liked the vibrant colours of the picture and kept it on her dressing table.

The conversation returned to the purchase of the furniture and the other sundry items, and prices agreed. Boissonade gave Villambard a detailed account of items purchased and prices paid. Including the small picture, purchased for 200 francs.

Back in the shop, Boissonade catalogued and photographed all the items and presented them for sale, the small picture added to the window display.

On Monday, November 26th 1979, Jean-François Boissonade opened the shop as usual at 10am. Immediately he noticed the cash till had been forced open and emptied of perhaps 300 francs. Someone had broken in through the small window at the back of the shop. Upon further inspection, he noticed the window display had been messed with. And the small picture was gone.

The police came and Boissonade explained that there was nothing else missing except the cash and the picture.

18 Months Later

Almost 18 months later, the illustrious Paris auction house, Cabinet Garnier Perrin released their catalogue for their upcoming sale of fine art. One of the early lots was described as a Mediterranean coastal scene 15cms x 11.5cms, artist unknown, unsigned, marking on the back in pencil ‘I t’ or ‘H’ 72.

Art History Mystery


David Hockney is one of the most brilliant and influential artists of our time.

In the 1960s, Hockney had produced a series of paintings around the theme of a vibrantly coloured swimming pool. Here’s ‘Bigger Splash’ from 1967.


In April 1972, Hockney spent time in and around Saint Tropez to research a further swimming pool work. He took hundreds of photos and likely did sketches and small paintings during his stay.

Working further on the theme, Hockney’s ‘Autumn Pool’ sold for £1,329,250 (approx €1,534,645) in 1978.

Autumn Pool 1978


Back in the auction room in April, the small picture stolen from the shop in Nice was expected to sell for around 500 French francs, (approx €75). The hammer fell at the equivalent of €42,350.

Of course, the sale created heavy media attention and was heavily covered by the newspapers the following day.

Reading one of these newspapers and seeing the photo of the picture was Sorbonne student Karine Boissonade, daughter of Jean-François Boissonade, the antiques dealer from Nice. Immediately recognising the picture as the one from her dressing table in Nice, she alerted her father and police arrived at the Garnier Perrin auction house shortly after. A court order was put in place to halt the transfer of funds paid for the picture and its delivery to the purchaser, whilst a detailed investigation began.

Jean-François Boissonade was able to provide police with the original purchase order and photos of the picture he took on initial receipt at his shop in Nice as well as the recorded report of the theft.

The picture had been entered for sale by a retired art dealer, Charles Cherbuliez from Marseille who claimed to have bought the picture from a local market stall of art. He thought the picture had ‘something about it’ and decided to try it, on instinct, in the Paris art auction. He died in a car accident a few weeks into the investigation.

The purchase of the picture at the auction was annulled. The identity of the purchaser was never revealed.

Jacques Riberolles, who was the contemporary art specialist at Garnier Perrin at the time has spoken very little of the incident. Except to maintain that his firm were the premier Paris house in achieving the highest price for its vendors.

So what has happened between then and now ?

Ownership of the small picture was awarded to the Boissonade family in 1983. Jean-François Boissonade retired and closed his shop in Nice in April 1986. He gave the painting to his daughter. Karine completed her studies at The Sorbonne and later married into a family of famous race-horse owners. She keeps the picture on her dressing table to this day.

Karine spent some time investigating the picture. Little was found, except to establish the picture depicts a view from the beach in Cannes of the Esterel Mountains, close to Saint Tropez and Sainte-Maxime.

Art History Mystery

Share this article


Hugh Atkins

Co-founder of Pure France. 20 years of visiting and photographing fabulous properties, meeting fascinating people and driving every main and back road in France.

See more from Hugh Atkins

Where in France


Open on Google maps

Villas & Châteaux in France

 Find your perfect French holiday home...

© Pure France.™ All rights reserved.

Choose language