Auvers and the French Secret Service
A key element of the Mystery of Auvers is an operation of the French Secret Service in the 1950s that allegedly suppressed a rising tide of extraordinary new evidence about the death of Vincent van Gogh.
This “Operation Indigo,” as one of its participants later called it, involved the assassination of a whistleblowing famous artist, the intimidation of surviving witnesses of the Van Gogh death scene, the theft of pertinent historical documents from the French archives and the seizure, and probable destruction, of a newly discovered Van Gogh letter that, in effect, named his killers.
Did this really happen or is it urban legend?
Richard Deacon, author of the 1990 book, The French Secret Service, said that, “If the French Government of the Algerian War era actually perceived a cultural threat” on the order of the Mystery of Auvers, he would be “very much surprised” if the operation did not happen. “Understand that in the 1950s, the Fourth Republic’s intelligence services hijacked airliners, poisoned foreign leaders, and routinely gunned down or bombed Algerian supporters (and their relatives) in other European countries... It was the Wild West, with hundreds of illegal operations, often carried out by underworld hirelings, always with no official documentation... So the idea of a secret service campaign to protect what the government of that time would certainly consider an important cultural resource is not at all farfetched.”
Still, unless some documentation does magically appear, we may never know for sure. In the meantime, Operation Indigo lives as the inspiration, plot-source and ethos of William Arnold’s epic mystery novel, Exile in the Light; and in the testimony of a handful of veterans of that fading time who claim to have taken some part in it: testimony that is now excerpted in the novel’s companion book, A Death in Auvers: The Strange Suicide of Vincent van Gogh.
For those who want to dive deeper into the murky depths of the Mystery of Auvers but not enough to read the companion book, the following excerpts (excerpts of excerpts, really) are offered. They are basically the lead-ins to the interviews, intended to give their flavor and provide a few illustrations that are actually not in the text of A Death in Auvers. Note that these are edited from interviews with three sources conducted over three decades, in three different cities, on three different continents.
May 19, 1988
How long have you worked in the French film industry?
You’re now retired?
In what capacity did you work?
I was what you would call a production manager, primarily.
Normally not. Normally I assisted the credited production manager.
But you worked primarily with Hollywood movies that filmed in France after the war?
Oh, many. The Green Glove, with Glenn Ford. Diane with Lana Turner. Bedazzled, with Anne Baxter. Later on, with pictures like Gigi, The Longest Day, Is Paris Burning?, Day of the Jackal. Many, many pictures.
When did you first become involved with the Van Gogh movie, Lust for Life?
That must have been, oh, I would say... early spring of 1955. After (MGM) had determined just which locations they wanted to use.
Who did you answer to? Your boss?
Julien Derode, the producer in charge of the film’s French unit, a close friend. Sometimes Christian Ferry, the production manager. Also a friend.
What exactly did you do?
I prepared the locations for the filming. This was in various neighborhoods of Paris, here in Provence and in Auvers-sur-Oise. Also Mons, in Belgium.
What did this involve?
It was a matter of making sure the locals cooperated with the film company, that it wouldn’t encounter any labor difficulties, for instance. The liaison between the company and the community, you might say.
I take it Lust for Life was considered, at the time, quite an important picture?
Very important. The most important U.S. picture that had filmed in France up to that time.
The government was very keen on it.
It was, I believe, the most expensive U.S. film in France up to that time. (Director Vincent) Minnelli was very well considered. And Impressionism and Van Gogh had become, in this depressed period, an important resource for us that the government was eager to promote.
When did you first become aware of the Gachet Collection Scandal?
Shortly after the exhibit opened at l’Orangerie, which would have been...
Probably. Maybe a bit later. January of the next year, I would think.
Experts were lining up to call the paintings fakes?
It was in all the Paris papers, front-page.
Why did this concern MGM?
Because they were using these very paintings in the film’s climax, the scenes in Auvers-sur-Oise.
Couldn’t they just omit those paintings?
Not easily. You see, (producer John) Houseman was determined that the film would be a gallery of Van Gogh’s art -- the authentic paintings, photographed under laboratory conditions and worked into the film as inserts and montages. And it had to be the real paintings, not reproductions.
Because a reproduction can’t duplicate the exciting texture of a Van Gogh painting. The swirl of impasto. This was, you know, a crucial selling point for him... But the Van Gogh nephew in Amsterdam, who still owned most of the paintings, refused to cooperate with the film in any way, so --
Why was the nephew so against the film?
He believed it exaggerated the French influence on Van Gogh’s
career at the expense of the Dutch influence, which was true. The film, you might say, paints him as a French artist.
So what did you use for paintings?
Houseman sent camera crews to museums and private collections around the world to photograph enough paintings to show Van Gogh’s development. And, of course, we were happy to allow Houseman access to the Louvre’s Van Goghs.
Most of which were in the Gachet Collection?
Yes. So you can see the problem. And the Gachet Endowment paintings -- the Church of Auvers, the Portrait of Dr. Gachet and so forth -- had just made their debut at l’Orangerie, and had received an immense amount of publicity, so they were the star attractions of the film’s climax.
The nephew actually told the press he believed all the paintings of the Gachet Collection to be frauds?
Yes, it was very political, a fight over Van Gogh as a cultural asset. And it was not just the paintings that were at stake. The character of Dr. Gachet was also under attack. He was an important character in Van Gogh’s life and in the Lust for Life screenplay, and all these eminent art critics were calling him and his son a pair of forgers... It was a death threat to the film.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Building
October 8-10, 1993
How long were you employed by SDECE?
Employed may not be the right word. I was only on their books for a brief time in 1954.
Then how long did you work off the books for them?
Between 1953 and 1960.
The Service-Action branch?
How were you paid?
In cash. Always.
Wasn’t it difficult to live like that?
Not in those days. Until I emigrated to Canada, my whole working life was cash-only. Except for those few months in 1954, I never saw a check.
Did you pay taxes?
(Laughs) I think I will not answer that.
What was your most important mission prior to 1955?
Prior to 1955 my most important mission was bugging the Egyptian Embassy in Paris. We went in as electricians and did it all in about an hour. They were so stupid, they never suspected a thing. So we were able to know what Nasser was thinking all during the run-up to Suez. That’s also how we knew he was financing (the Algerian Rebellion).
ANDRE SOUARD, 1953
Were you involved in the Suez Crisis in '56?
Then what was your most important involvement after 1955?
For the rest of my intelligence service I was involved with Algeria.
Anything specific you’d care to mention?
I’d rather not talk about Algeria.
Why is that?
Because I did some things in those years I’m not proud of. Things extremely painful to remember.
You no longer believe it was a good cause?
I never believed that. I was surrounded by pied-noir fanatics but I was never one myself.
Yet you left France when the others did -- after De Gaulle.
I would have gone to jail otherwise.
How long were you involved with this 1955 campaign to... what?
Put out the Gachet fires.
I never heard that name. It must be the invention of your movie friend.
What did you call it?
Then how long were you involved with the Auvers Affair?
Only a short while. Three weeks, perhaps. It was a temporary assignment to DST. I was loaned to them.
Were there personnel from other units besides DST and SDECE?
You’ve heard of Service Seven?
The special unit nicknamed “The Burglars?”
Yes, they were involved. Also one fellow from La Légion Étrangère.
Really? The Foreign Legion? Why so many different --?
Possibly so that no agency would have a full picture of the overall goal and scope of the operation.
How many agents were involved?
Five that I know of for sure. But there may have been two or three more.
Each from a different intelligence service?
I think so.
Did you act as a group or --
No, we acted independently, though there was some inner-communication -- the Legion fellow kept calling me about one thing or another.
What was your specific assignment?
To visit Louis Anfray, the man who had initiated the forgery charges.
When was this?
What were you supposed to do to him?
To, you know, visit him and convince him to keep his mouth shut.
By appealing to his patriotism, and, if that didn’t work, to threaten him. And if that didn’t work, to do whatever had to be done to shut him up.
Buenos Aires, Argentina January 11, 2004
Do you mind if I start with a few establishing questions?
Do you know who Andre Achiary is?
Was. He died some years ago. A French-Algerian leader. Formerly a member of SDECE. I worked with him many times.
What about Jean-Baptiste Biaggi?
Biaggi was a lawyer who served faithfully in the war to save Algeria from the Muslims. Originally, he was from Corsica. I believe he’s still alive.
What was Operation Elba?
Elba... That was, I believe, a coup attempt, a plot, during the first year of the Algerian Rebellion. But it never went beyond the planning stage. How do you know about Elba? That’s truly obscure.
You’re second generation pied-noir?
You grew up in Algeria?
Until I was twelve, when my father moved us to Marseille. I worked on the docks in my young manhood, then the European war broke out.
You were in the Resistance? Maqui?
In Provence. You’ve heard about the defenders of the Vercors Plateau? I was there.
How did you happen to join the Maqui?
Through Le Milieu. Working on the docks, I made many lasting friendships in Le Milieu.
IN THE FRENCH RESISTENCE,
When were you recruited into the DST?
After the war.
What did you do for them?
Many things, many missions in France. Then, when the rebellion broke out in Algeria, I went to Algiers. I spoke Arabic and some Berber so I could be of value there.
And after De Gaulle granted independence to Algeria, you joined the Armée Secrète?
Is it true you took part in an attempt on De Gaulle’s life?
(Shrugs) Our agreement was to talk only about the Gachet business.
How do you now feel about France?
It betrayed me. It gave my homeland to a Muslim mob. How do you think I feel? Brûlé.
How did this mission (Operation Indigo) come about?
I don’t know. I assume it was instigated at the request of Gachet (Jr.).
Why do you think this?
I saw him at the Ministry.
In what capacity?
I saw him in meetings with (my superiors) in the Interior Ministry relating to the operation. I assumed that he was calling the shots. You know, that he had the power. Because he was donating his art treasure to France for nothing and they were eager to keep him pleased.
Who was your immediate superior in DST?
I will not tell you his name because he was a good man who later spoke for me when others were afraid to do so. In the Gachet business, I did not answer to him anyway.
Who did you answer to?
Yes, the bastard himself.