What do the singer Madonna and Amiens in northern France have in common? Not a lot, says the city’s mayor, Brigitte Fouré, who admits the global star has probably never heard of the city until now.
However, Fouré insists there is a “special link” between the two in the shape of an early 19th-century painting that once hung in the Amiens museum until it was lost without trace during the first world war.
Now the mayor is appealing for Madonna to loan a painting she possesses – Diana and Endymion, thought to be by Jérôme-Martin Langlois – for what she hopes will be Amiens’ successful bid to become the European capital of culture in 2028.
“Madonna, you probably haven’t heard of Amiens … but there is a special link between you and our city,” Fouré says in her video appeal.
“This painting is probably a work that was lent to the Amiens museum by the Louvre before the first world war after which we lost trace of it,” she adds.
The oil painting, commissioned by Louis XVIII to hang in the Salon of Diane at the Palace of Versailles and completed in 1822, was acquired by the French republic in 1873. It was exhibited at the Musée des Beaux-Arts – now the Musée de Picardie – in Amiens from 1878 but was thought to have been destroyed when the city was bombed in 1918.
A recent article in Le Figaro newspaper suggested the painting, or one almost identical to it but without Langlois’s signature or any date, reappeared in 1989 in a New York auction where Madonna paid $1.3m for it, more than three times its estimated price.
At the time, nobody in France appeared to recognise the work as painted by Langlois, but in 2015 a curator from Amiens noticed it in the background of a photograph of Madonna at her home published in Paris Match magazine.
On March 1918, in an attempt to break through allied lines, the Germans pounded Amiens with shells and bombs for 28 days and nights, destroying much of the city including part of the museum, whose paintings were evacuated to safety.
When they were returned to Amiens after the war, the Langlois was missing. It was first listed as “untraceable since the return of the 1918 removed works”, then “destroyed by the falling of a bomb on the museum”.
The painting Madonna bought is 3cm smaller than the artwork that disappeared in Amiens, leading experts to wonder if it is the original with the signature and date removed or a copy.
The museum has lodged legal action against “persons unknown” for the theft of the painting, none of which Fouré says need concern Madonna.
“Clearly, we don’t contest in any way that you have acquired this work legally,” Fouré says in her message to the singer … could you lend us this work for the occasion of our bid to become European capital of culture in 2028 so our local inhabitants can rediscover this work and enjoy it?
“That is my prayer, the wish I am presenting to you.”
The European Union will announce the 2028 European capital of culture in December.
Fouré told the Guardian she had only recently learned that the missing and previously long forgotten painting may be owned by Madonna and had been overwhelmed by the response to her appeal.
“My initial aim was to do something a bit humorous to make people talk about my city, especially at this time, when the pre-selection for European capital of culture is happening. I thought there would be some response to the video, but not the reaction there has been,” she said.
“I thought it would be a good idea to ask her if we could just borrow this painting that we haven’t seen since the first world war. The painting was sold in a perfectly legal auction; she bought it and she owns it. I’m not asking her to give it to us but to allow us to borrow it for just a few weeks so people here can see it.”
Amiens’ current claim to fame is as the birthplace of President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte. Fouré says the city would welcome a visit by Madonna.
“It would be amazing to have her come here but I can’t imagine it happening,” she said. “Still, now everyone is talking about Amiens!”