Vasarely, Arp and Giacometti: The three French foundations plagued by lawsuits

The question of what exactly the artist would have wanted is ultimately unanswerable, and therefore liable to cause friction


There are only about 15 art foundations in France (see box), and most of them function without problems; however three are highly controversial, often in the news and the subject of multiple lawsuits. They are the Vasarely and Arp Foundations, which are struggling to survive, and the future Giacometti Foundation, which is struggling to be born.

Vasarely: in a deep coma

One of the most acute examples of the problems surrounding these institutions concerns the Vasarely Foundation, whose long-running problems have plunged it into a deep coma.

It was created in September 1971 by Victor Vasarely, the 1970s Op-art darling whose work has since fallen considerably in the public esteem. He and his wife gave works of art worth, at the time, more than FFr300 million (about £22.5m; $54m), and opened a museum in Gordes and a splendid building in Aix-en-Provence. In 1981 the directors of the museum entered into an agreement with the law faculty of Aix-Marseille university, which was given responsibility for managing the foundation. Charles Debbasch, honorary president of the university, became president of the foundation.

This arrangement ran smoothly for 10 years (1981-1991). Some disagreements arose after the death of Vasarely’s wife in November 1990 and increasingly violent conflict erupted after Mr Debbasch’s contract was not renewed in 1992. Everyone accused everyone else of falsehood, abuse of trust, attempted swindling, theft, denunciation of imaginary crimes etc. In November 1994 Charles Debbasch was accused of abuse of confidence and imprisoned; he spent two months in prison, in Les Baumettes.

After the death of Victor Vasarely, one of his two daughters-in-law, Michèle Vasarely, took over as head of the institution. Subsequently, for reasons given below, the foundation was obliged to return almost all the paintings donated by the artist. The Gordes chateau had become an empty shell, and was closed. The Aix museum has become a general exhibition space, except that it still has some monumental Vasarely works which could not be removed.

Claire’s will (the artist’s wife) whose estate was held in common with that of her husband under French law, gave the family the opportunity to contest the donations that Vasarely had made to the foundation. The question was a simple one: in giving a large proportion of his property to the foundation, had the artist exceeded the disposable portion of the estate?

Under French law, a certain portion of an estate must go to the family and only a part can be disposed of elsewhere. If the total exceeds this disposable portion, the heirs can claim the difference from the recipients of donations or bequests. (The regulation is designed to prevent descendents and parents from being disinherited). But it can obviously be circumvented: all the main heirs have to do is hide, when the will is being executed, some of the property belonging to the deceased, thereby fraudulently reducing the amount that they receive.

Did Vasarely’s sons do this? I cannot speculate, but this is what Charles Debbasch claims; but then everyone accuses everyone else of the worst crimes in this affair. I shall just say that two suits were filed, on 17 April and 22 June 1992, by Charles Debbasch, and that, in a third lawsuit, M Debbasch notes the conclusions of the prosecutor of Aix-en-Provence.

What is sure, however, is that the Vasarely heirs did sue the foundation, and its president, demanding the return of works of art. In April 1995 Michèle Vasarely became president of the foundation, and a legal decision in 1997 evaluated Claire Vasarely’s estate at FFr433 million; her two sons were thus entitled to some FFr166 million. In order to pay this debt, the foundation had to return to them most of the works of Vasarely that it had been given, leaving the foundation in its present comatose state.

The Arp Foundation: all’s well that ends well

When talking about the Arp Foundation, it is always necessary to say which one you mean. There are three. The first is in Germany, at Rolandseck near Bonn; the second in France, at Clamart near Paris; and the third is in Switzerland, at Locarno on Lake Maggiore. The existence of these three foundations, which are supposed to co-operate, is causing some problems.

Why is there a French foundation? There are various versions of what Jean Arp wished during the last years of his life. Some say that his dearest wish was that, after his death, his works should be exhibited beside those of Sophie Tauber-Arp, his first wife, in the home in Clamart where he had spent most of his life. Others claim he simply wanted the four buildings there to be used by artists as studios. Whatever the truth, the sculptor’s widow, Marguerite, donated some works, which had been impounded during a tax dispute, to Clamart. So this became the preferred site to display them; unfortunately it must be said that the rather out-of-the-way-site hardly attracted large numbers. It was only suitable for the foundation’s other missions: defend the artist’s work, maintain the archives, maintain contact with researchers and so on. The French foundation remained the “little sister” of the German foundation, which has the majority of works and the reproduction rights. It was supposed to live on subsidies from the Germans, but quarrels erupted and they stopped paying, leaving the French foundation barely ticking over on income from its meagre capital and from a Friend’s Association.

The conflict came to a head when a the German foundation decided to move a group of 114 plaster models by Jean Arp, conserved in Clamart, to Germany (These supposedly belonged to the German foundation, but this is in dispute). This infuriated the French foundation, which wanted to keep them in Arp’s studio. Having allowed them to leave France, the French customs then demanded they be repatriated, since they had not received an export licence (the French law regulating exports, dated 23 June 1941, was still applicable). So the Germans sent the plasters back.

But when the 1941 law was replaced by another in 1992, the Germans felt they should get the group back. Under the new law, export of the pieces only needed a certificate when their value exceeded €50,000 (about £32,500, $45,500). According to the interested parties, none of the pieces were that valuable. However the authorities disagreed and stopped the group at the frontier. Even though specialists could not agree on the value, the authorities decided to take the German foundation, plus the shipper, to court for illegal export of 19 plasters, worth, they said, over €50,000 (the others were estimated to be worth less).

Then the authorities changed their tune and said that the group was in fact a “collection” which would require an export permit, since its total value was more than the famous €50,000 benchmark. The problem is that, if the idea of collection is indeed covered by the 1992 law, no one really knows what it means. However in 1998 the Valenciennes tribunal, and in 2000 the Douai Appeal Court, agreed with the authorities. Criminal sentences were handed out and the 114 pieces were confiscated.

Even if these decisions seem unsound from a legal point of view, they did have one positive effect: they made the German foundation realise that France would defend the French foundation to the bitter end. An agreement has been reached between the two institutions (it has yet to be ratified) and under it the four Clamart buildings will become the property of the French foundation, and the 114 plasters will be conserved there. The Germans will fund it, partly by giving it reproduction rights to some of the works. So all’s well that ends well.

The difficult birth of the Giacometti Foundation

The problems which have prevented the birth of the Giacometti Foundation all stem from lawsuits brought by the Association Giacometti and the artist’s heirs, and the heirs of Annette Giacometti, his widow. Ms Giacometti was keen to set up a foundation, and created an association on 20 December 1989. The association was rather like a chrysalis, which ideally would have given birth to the foundation which was to receive the works of art left by the artist (valued at FFr800 million, £81 million; $134 million).

Annette Giacometti endowed the association generously: she deposited the sum of FFr22.7 million, the interest from which was intended to cover the expenses, and gave it premises in Paris, in the Cour de Rohan, plus some furniture.

It was laid down in the statutes, however, that she would repossess her property if, after five years, the recognition of public interest (required for the creation of a foundation) had not been granted.

When Annette Giacometti died on 19 September 1993 the association still had not been granted recognition of public interest. Before she died, she appointed the well-known but currently disgraced French lawyer and one-time Minister of Foreign Affairs, Roland Dumas, as the executor of her will, requesting him to do whatever was required for the foundation to be established.

Trouble soon broke out between Dumas and the director of the association, Lisa Palmer. Eager to escape from this hornets’ nest, Roland Dumas asked for the judicial administrator to deal with Annette Giacometti’s estate. Maître Da Camara was appointed on 1 July 1999. Me Da Camara was of the view that, because the time limit set by the association had long since expired, therefore the association was awarded the property and became sole owner. She issued a writ to ensure that certain measures were taken. The tribunal accepted her decision (17 February 2000)

It must be added here that, since then, the brother and the sister-in-law of Annette Giacometti have begun legal proceedings to ensure that the plan for a foundation should be abandoned and the works left by the artist be returned to them. In fact this would make quite good sense.

Since the heirs have to pay 50% capital gains tax they would have to make a gift to the government in lieu, and the Centre Pompidou would then receive half the pieces in question.

In France there are currently about 15 foundations in the field of the fine and graphic arts. They fall into three categories:

1. To publicise the work of a particular artist, particularly by purchasing or otherwise acquiring his work and presenting it to the public. The Arp, Carzou, Dubuffet, Gleizes, Hartung, Maillol, Rouault, Vasarely and Volti foundations are in this category. Some of these are very active, for example the Maillol Foundation which is run by Dina Vierny, has opened a museum to display the work of the sculptor and his friends, and temporary exhibitions by modern artists are arranged there from time to time. Others have less ambitious aims, for example the Gleizes Foundation which, so far, has been mainly devoted to publishing the catalogue raisonné of the painter’s work.

2. Foundations in the second category have created museums which do not necessarily centre around the work of a single artist. The most famous of these is the Fondation Marguerite and Aimé Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence.

3. Foundations whose principal objective is to assist contemporary artists by providing studios and organising exhibitions of their work. The best-known of these are La Ruche-Seydoux which, as its name indicates, has acquired La Ruche, a group of studios situated in Passage Dantzig in Paris, and the Fondation Daniel et Florence Guerlain which, in the village of Mesnuls, offers accommodation to artists and exhibits their work.

Source: Rendre plus attractif le droit des foundations, study by the Conseil d’état. La documentation française, 1997

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Not what the artist wanted?'