It is a strange wooden crate. Since a few months, it completely covers the headstone of a grave of the Montparnasse cemetery, in Paris. The tourists, who wander between the aisles, where are buried Baudelaire, Maupassant or serge Gainsbourg, often go ahead without even taking a look. And yet, if they knew… Those planks of light wood will hide one of the sculptures the most expensive in the world : The Kiss, Constantin Brancusi, a limestone block depicting a couple fusionnellement entwined. A marvel of minimalism, which adorns the tomb of a certain Tatiania Rachewskaïa, a young Russian who mysteriously committed suicide in Paris, in 1910. Eros and Thanatos together.

Listen to Jérôme Dupuis tell the story of Tatiana Rachewskaïa, of his suicide, the very expensive sculpture of Brancusi, the heirs and the art dealer (on SoundCloud).

What nobody knows, is that this sculpture is iconic is for more than ten years in the heart of a court battle hushed, between the French State to the descendants of the young Russian, who would like to recover the statue, to sell it. Small detail that gives an idea of the issue : after Giacometti, Brancusi is today the sculptor the most expensive in the world. On the 15th of last may, at Christie’s, in New York, his Young sophisticated girl is gone… 71 million. “At auction, the sculpture of the Montparnasse cemetery could reach 40 or 50 million”, and provides off a good connoisseur. “All proportions kept, it is as if The mona lisa was hanging, day and night, in the garden of the Tuileries,” sighs a protagonist in the folder.

The medallion of Tatiana Rachewskaïa, on his grave in the Montparnasse cemetery.

Photo Marc Chaumeil for the Express

this Whole story could have been confined a long time in the law courts, administrative courts, to the shelter of the media and the general public. But an unexpected event could well shine the spotlight on the famous wooden crate : in these first days of January, a novel wonder, aptly titled The Kiss, has recently been published by Julliard. Signed Sophie Brocas, mixing cleverly reality and fiction, it is inspired by the history of sculpture in the Montparnasse cemetery. “Beyond the dimension of fiction, I wanted to ask a question : can a work of art can even now escape the market and should be available for everyone to view in a public place ?” asks the novelist, in addition préfète in the civil. A question at the heart of this fantastic deal.

Dead, no doubt, of despair amorous

But let us return first to the last days of the year 1910. Tatiana Rachewskaïa, a young Russian of the good society of Kiev, born April 6, 1887, lived for some time in Paris. Of it, one knows that the locket adorning his tomb, next to child melancholy under a white hat tchékhovien. His friend, the writer, revolutionary, Ilya Ehrenbourg, itself in France at the time, paints a brief portrait in Years and men : “It was the sister of my classmate Vasea. She had been in prison, and then had left for Paris and enrolled at the Faculty of medicine.” A rumor is described as “anarchist” and a kinswoman of the great Tolstoy.

in order To perfect his French, the young exile takes classes from a doctor of Romanian origin of the Pasteur Institute, Solomon Marbais. Soon, idilio was born between the student and the physician. A romance that will end in the great tradition of the Russian novel. At the end of November 1910, the sister of dr Marbais is visiting Tatiana Rachewskaïa in his room on the boulevard de Port-Royal. When she pushes the door, she discovers the young Russian hanging. Suicide. Without a doubt, of despair in love. She was 23 years old (1).

The Kiss of Brancusi at Montparnasse cemetery, before that a wooden box does not cover it.


funerals are organised at the beginning of December. “His mother was coming to Moscow. She had convinced the priest to give, according to the custom of the ritual, a candle to all those present and the sexton sang : ‘Forgive him all his sins,…'”, said Ilya Ehrenbourg. To honor the memory of Tatiana, her family wishes to erect a headstone above his grave. The doctor Marbais offers to intervene with a young Romanian sculptor of his friends, Constantin Brancusi. Arrived a few years earlier from his native country, briefly a pupil of Rodin, Brancusi is a total unknown. But it was precisely carved, there are few, a couple entwined, as he titled The Kiss. It is this work that is erected in the spring of 1911 at the top of the grave of Tatiana.

A place of rendezvous for romantic couples

“This sculpture holds a very important place in the work of Brancusi, comments Doina Lemny, curator at the national Museum of modern art at the Pompidou Centre and great specialist of the Romanian artist (2). Between 1907 and 1945, he sculpted many versions of the Kiss. But the Montparnasse cemetery, carried out in direct size, is the only one that represents the couple as a whole. Its dimension carnal is much stronger.” It is also by far the largest of the series, with 90 centimetres of height.

For nearly a century, nobody will care really sculpture at the Montparnasse cemetery. Nestled in a small nook in the shelter of the main alleys, the grave of Tatiana becomes a place of secret rendezvous for romantic couples. The writer Marc-Edouard Nabe is even said in its Journal will be delivered one day his foot to engage in sexual activity with a friend…

And then, on may 4, 2005, an event qui occurs at 6 000 kilometres from the Montparnasse cemetery is going to change everything. At Christie’s in New York, Bird in space, a marble Brancusi, reached $ 27.5 million. World Record for a sculpture and thunderclap in the market of the item by a Strange coincidence, this same year, six unidentified men who came from countries of the East and contend with the City of Paris their rights of property on the grave of Tatiana Rachewskaïa. They are all descendants of the young Russian, which enjoys a perpetual concession to the cemetery Montparnasse. In the clear, they are the owners of the tomb. Therefore, the Kiss.

Purchased 200 French francs at the time

These heirs have not occurred by chance. It is a parisian art merchant on the nose hollow, Guillaume Duhamel, who was found at the bottom of Russia. “Because of the iron Curtain, they were not aware of the existence of this statue. I’ve been informed and have offered to do all the steps on their behalf to save the sculpture,” explains the expert, associated for the occasion at the auction house Millon.

He put his hand on a letter from the mother of Tatiana to Brancusi, proving that the family has directly paid the sculptor for The Kiss. The letter evokes the sum of 200 French francs… to The passage, the mother admitted to the sculptor with honesty that she does not appreciate his work. Too racy, perhaps… The family has even thought of a time to replace it with a bust of Tatiana.

The famous wooden crate that covers the sculpture of Brancusi. A hole allows the air to circulate and verify that the work is always present.

Photo Marc Chaumeil for the Express

nevertheless, in 2006, Guillaume Duhamel demand the right to export the sculpture of Brancusi. In short, the idea is to detach from the stele, to be replaced by a copy and sell it at auction. Refusal of the minister of Culture, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, that class immediately The Fucking “national treasure”, which has the effect of prohibiting any output of the French territory. And this is not the end : four years later, on may 21, 2010, the prefect of the region Ile-de-France recorded the entirety of the grave of Tatiana Rachewskaïa as historic monuments. The standoff between the heirs and the French State is, in fact, launched.

to tell the truth, it is one of the controversial legal-artistic of the most amazing in recent decades. A headache in court, at the crossroads of law’s funeral and the cultural policy of the State. “The French State considers that the grave, the tombstone and the sculpture, form a “building” totally interdependent and inseparable subject in this quality in the plan of protection of historical monuments, summarizes Me Isabelle Robert-Védie, lawyer of the family Rachewskaïa at the firm Simon & Associates. We consider for our part that this sculpture existed before being integrated to the tomb that she has to decorate, and it can therefore be dissociated.” In a decision of April 12, 2018, the administrative court of Paris has rejected a new time all the requests of the family. The judge is of the opinion that the stele of vertical stone, on which rests the sculpture is signed on its base by Brancusi and the artist has carved the epitaph to the “dear kind darling” Tatiana : the grave would be a while.

A treasure under video surveillance

“It is false, we have new items, ensures Guillaume Duhamel. We recently found some invoices and written orders from the house of marble Schmit, boulevard Edgar-Quinet in Paris, dating back to April and may, 1911, duly stamped by the cemetery and signed by the father of Tatiana, to the installation of this stele and the engraving of the epitaph in cyrillic characters. It is these artisans, and non-Brancusi, who have carried out this work.” The Express was able to consult these documents, from the archives of the national Museum of modern art at the Pompidou Centre.

The signature at the foot of the stele is from the hand of Constantin Brancusi, or has it been engraved by an artisan mason ?

Photo Marc Chaumeil for the Fast

“indeed, the inscription ‘Brancusi’ at the foot of the stele is not of his hand, ” says the expert. I compared with many other signatures and it’s never uses of letters-sticks mechanical like this.” The artist did not usually sign his signature in a cartridge, as is the case here. Strong of these new elements, Robert-Védie has appealed the decision. The hearing, which is crucial, could take place in a few months before the administrative Court of appeal. The plaintiffs say they are ready to go to the Council of State, and even before the european courts, if necessary.

In the meantime, The Kiss still relies on the grave of Tatiana Rachewskaïa. Sadly, it is located in a corner isolated from the 22nd division of the cemetery, just a few meters from the enclosure wall. Three discrete surveillance cameras are turned permanently on this treasure, moreover protected by an alarm. And then, consequently, in the last few months, there is the famous wooden crate, noticed at the time by a blogger american. “Experts have pointed to the obvious risk of degradation, justifies Guillaume Duhamel. There are frost, weathering, moss, car pollution on the boulevard Raspail, much more corrosive as it was in 1910. Not to mention the possible fall of a tree.” So, also, without doubt, to the heirs, by stealing the masterpiece at the sight, “put some pressure” on the administration…

Constantin Brancusi

Corbis via

The art dealer and the family never despair not, of course, be able to sell one day Fuck it and hit the jackpot. But the French State would have its word to say. “For any work declared ‘national treasure’, the administration may make an offer to purchase within thirty months. If it does not, then the work may be sold without restriction on the private market,” says Robert-Védie. The most logical solution would be, of course, that the sculpture joins the Museum from the Centre Pompidou. The institution already has an exceptional collection of Brancusi, who had bequeathed the whole of his work to the French State, at his death, in 1957. “The family is open to any proposal from the State that would meet its interests,” says Guillaume Duhamel. “It is a kindly joke,” says an official of the ministry of Culture. Already, when a museum can pull out 3 million euros, that is a feat ! So, you think, tens of millions…”

Never Brancusi could not have imagined that his work would find itself at the center of such controversy. The sculptor is a ringside seat to follow the slightest twist of the banshee. His burial does that to a few tens of meters of the one of Tatiana Rachewskaïa. Under a simple slab, without a headstone, without sculpture. And without wooden box.

(1) Barbu Brezianu, “The secret of the Kiss of Montparnasse”, in La Revue du Louvre et des musées de France n°1, 1969.

(2) She has published Brancusi & Martha or the love story between Tantan and Uncle, Fage, 2017.

read : The kiss, by Sophie Brocas, Julliard, 300 p., 20 euros.


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