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Court action after Renoir archive fails to sell at auction

Collector sues family trust which had withdrawn the artist’s belongings from sale

Rockville, Maryland

The attempted sale of an important archive from the family of Pierre Auguste Renoir is now the subject of a lawsuit. An American buyer, Charles Slane, is sueing the Paul Renoir and Marie-Paul Renoir Trust, claiming it accepted his offer of $135,000 for the archive, but then did not go through with the sale.

The archive was offered at auction in May, with an estimate of $250/350,000, but was bought in at $150,000 without any bids.

After the failed sale, the auctioneer Paula Hantman told The Art Newspaper that she had some initial interest from French institutions, but that finally the whole group was withdrawn by the Trust.

The archive includes letters from Renoir to his wife and family and correspondence with Rodin, Monet and Manet; Renoir’s marriage certificate, the bill for his funeral, his silk scarf and Légion d’Honneur medals as well as hundreds of photographs, including one taken just hours before the artist’s death. It came from the estate of Paul, grandson of the artist, who was often described as the black sheep of the family. He and his wife Marie-Paule emigrated to the US in the 1990s after reportedly having tax problems in France, and died earlier this year. Before his death, Paul had already consigned the archive to Hantmans, an auction house in a small town near Washington.

In his suit, Mr Slane says that Hantmans accepted his offer on behalf of the Trust three weeks after the failed sale, and agreed payment terms. He was then told that the Trust would not honour the agreement, but he made the payment as agreed, and claims this cemented the deal.

The sale of the Renoir archive had already caused consternation in the family, and surprise that it had not been kept in France. However, “These were family documents and [Paul] was quite free to take them with him when he moved to America,” said Michel Lyon, an official at the Heritage Department of France’s Ministry of Culture.

Before the sale, Mrs Hantman told The Art Newspaper that she had sent copies of the catalogue to every museum in the world with holdings of Renoir. She said she was surprised by the lack of interest generated.

This was not the first time Paul had tried to sell the archive; an official at the Musées de France told the newspaper Le Figaro that Paul had unsuccessfully tried to sell it for $1 million in the 1980s. “The archive is more important from the personal than the artistic point of view; we’ve known about it for years”, he said.

The catalogue comprised 136 numbers, offered as a single lot, (est. $250/350,000), although one group was withdrawn before the sale.