This French Working-Class Town Buys Art to Lend to Locals. It Just Found Out It Has Been Sitting on a $3.3 Million Gerhard Richter

The town of Saint-Priest will sell the work for the benefit of culture.

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild 630-2 (1987). Courtesy the Mairie Saint-Priest.

When was the last time you visited your local library? If you’re lucky, a bit of investigation could lead to a massive windfall. A small town near Lyon, France, discovered it was keeping a Gerhard Richter painting potentially worth millions in its artothèque, an art library where citizens and local businesses could borrow art.

The municipal council of Saint-Priest took the decision to sell the work during a meeting last night, after an expert valued the abstract painting at  €3 million ($3.3 million), a transformative amount for the working-class town.

“The objective is now to appoint an auctioneer or auction house to organize the sale in the coming months,” a spokesman for the mayor’s office told Artnet News, adding that there is as yet no fixed timeline for the sale.

The town has been purchasing contemporary art for its art library for decades, and the council also decided to sell a further nine works from its collection, including an untitled 1990 canvas by Claudio Parmiggiani which it bought in 1991 for 30 million liras, a 1970 Hans Hartung work it acquired in 1985 for 60,000 francs, as well as works by Robert Comas, Olivier Debre, Gérard Fromanger, Simon Hantai, Jean-Pierre Pincemin, and Peter Stampfli.

The spokesman said that the town would use the proceeds to invest in cultural initiatives in Saint-Priest, such as theater, cinema, and other projects, although he could not be more precise. “Nothing is defined yet at this stage, the work must first find a buyer,” he said.

The town purchased Richter’s Abstraktes Bild 630-2 (1987) in 1988, a year after the artist painted it, for less than 100,000 francs (around $17,000 at the time or around $41,000 in today’s money). The work went into the town’s art library, a French institution that gives individuals, schools, associations, businesses and communities access to borrow works of art, much like a library for books.

“We had a fund of 100,000 francs for the purchase of works of art,” Robert Rivière, the deputy mayor for culture at the time recalled to Le Progrés. Every year we went to Paris to visit galleries with university professor Pierre Cayez to buy art. We wanted a working-class town to have this access.”

Saint-Priest could be in for a large windfall if things go its way at auction when they come to sell the work. An expert has valued the work at between €2.5 million and €3 million ($2.8 million–$3.3 million). Factoring in inflation, that means it could fetch more than 80 times the town’s original investment.

When the current mayor Gilles Gascon realized the potential value of the painting, he immediately took the work out of the art library and placed it in a secure facility. “We can’t keep paintings whose artistic and commercial value prohibits all the usual uses in a facility like the Artothèque,” he said. “The work is in a safe in a specialized bank and this has a cost for the commune. It will be better if it is exhibited.”

The mayor’s spokesman told Artnet News that the council will not exhibit the work ahead of its sale for “security and insurance” reasons.

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