I love playing history detective. It always takes you to places you could not expect!
This time it starts with the story of an ordinary pair of painted Brittany wooden shoes seen at the Vermont Antique Show last week, and ends with Paul Gauguin’s carved wooden shoes which sold this week for nothing less than $340,000 at a Sotheby’s auction!
Last week, at the Vermont Antique Show, an exhibitor had a pair of old wooden shoes, each shoe painted with the face of a Brittany woman wearing the traditional intricate lace head-dress, called “coiffe”.
The words “Bretagne”, “Pont-Aven” and “bigouden” were also painted on the shoes. Of course, it caught my attention!
These shoes were obviously from my home region Brittany. They were old but obviously made for tourists. “Bretagne” means Brittany, Pont-Aven is a little village in the South of Brittany, and “bigouden” is the region where Pont-Aven is located and can also refer to the style of the head-dress from that region.
So I asked the antique shop owner if she knew where these shoes were from. “Germany?” she said. “No” I replied. “Holland?“. “No” I replied again. I have to say I was very surprised that an antique shop owner was so non-inquisitive.
How easy was it to search the word “Bretagne” to realize these were from Brittany? Isn’t it what antiques are all about?
It definitely leads me to believe that we can still find some treasures out there if even an antique shop owner knows so little about the antiques she sells!
Well, interestingly, Pont-Aven is also very famous for the “École de Pont-Aven”, a group of artists led by Paul Gauguin who worked and lived there from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. Paul Gauguin loved the way of life in Brittany.
That is how he described it in a letter to his friend Emile Schuffenecker: “I love Brittany which I find savage and primitive. When my clogs ring on the granite ground I hear the dull and powerful sound that I am looking for in painting” (Victor Merles, ed., Correspondence de Paul Gauguin, Paris, 1984, letter 141, p. 172).
And Paul Gauguin actually made at least 3 pairs of those traditional wooden shoes (“sabots”) Brittany people wore. The pair shown above is at the National Gallery of Art (see Paul Gauguin’s wooden shoes), one is in a private collection in Paris, and the 3rd one (unbelievable) was sold last week at a Sotheby’s auction for a record price of $338,500 as reported by the Telegraph in this article! A fascinating story indeed.