Luck plays a large part in building up a collection, unless one is willing to go to the large dealers and pay the high prices they ask. I never did that, preferring to purchase through the smaller dealers and through private sources. Some years ago, I met a South American dealer [Paul de Koenigsberg] who specialized in early eighteenth-century paintings and objets d’art. I invited him down to see some of my early genre paintings, which I proposed to exchange with him should he run across any modern works that might interest me. Sometime later he asked me to look at a Pissarro landscape. After I decided against it, he asked whether I could afford an expensive painting; receiving an affirmative answer, he brought out Tarascon Diligence by Van Gogh. Within an hour and a half, I had concluded a deal with him. His cash request was satisfactory, and in addition he wanted four genre paintings that I was glad to dispose of, two Renoirs that were not too important to me, and a Soutine that he had seen hanging in my office. I left pleased at my acquisition but a bit depressed at parting with one of my favorite Soutines. After passing a sleepless night, I was back at his gallery early the next morning and repurchased my Soutine.
Along with the Van Gogh I received several articles and letters regarding its background or pedigree. The first collector recorded was Medardo Rosso, an Italian sculptor who lived in Paris in the early 1890s. He hung it in his atelier for a while, but the painting received so much criticism from his various visitors that eventually he put it in his attic out of the way of discussion. In 1895 one of his friends and protégés, Milo Beretta, a painter and sculptor from Montevideo, Uruguay, left to return to his native country, and as he had always admired the Van Gogh, Rosso gave it to him as a gift. I have an original letter from Rosso to Beretta, written in 1906, advising the latter with joy that the value of Van Goghs was rising, that the painting he had given him was now worth some $4,000, and that Beretta, could now let his family know how worthwhile his stay in Paris had turned out.
The painting had received no publicity and probably was not exhibited until 1935, when it was the highlight of a French Impressionist group show in Montevideo. A Dutch art historian and writer saw this exhibition and gave the painting a good deal of publicity when he returned to Holland. When Beretta died, he left six daughters; and realizing that they had a valuable treasure – not one of them wanted to hang the picture out of fear of damage – it was then placed in a bank vault in Montevideo, where the aforementioned dealer unearthed it and bought it from the daughters.
Many of the early writers on Van Gogh knew that a painting of the Tarascon Coach existed because of a letter from Vincent to his brother, Theo, in which he described the work and drew a sketch of it. The sketch was reproduced in early books on Van Gogh with the statement that the original painting was lost. In Vincent’s letters to Theo, he keeps reminding him to please re-read Alphonse Daudet’s Tartarin of Tarascon. Daudet describes the dream of the “Diligence,” or coach, which had been transplanted to northern Africa for use as the main method of transportation; of the traveling Arabs who neglected the coach until it was rundown and unfit for use, and finally broken up for firewood. Vincent paints these coaches in a somewhat dilapidated state.
Vincent relates in his letter to Theo that he painted the Tarascon Diligence in a single afternoon: “Forgive this very bad sketch, 1 am nearly dead with painting that Tarascon Diligence, and I see that I have not the brains to draw.” He was at a very high emotional state at the time, preparing his house for Gauguin’s arrival to live with him, and anxious to have many of his paintings on the walls showing his own individuality before the latter arrived. I had the pleasure of showing the painting to Vincent Willem Van Gogh, the nephew of the painter, who was seeing this work for the first time although he had known of its existence for many years.