Hidden art horde fetches $4.5 million

A collection of impressionist and modern art unseen since before World War II raised $4.5 million at auction in Paris Tuesday earlier this week.

The collection of works by Renoir, Degas, Cézanne and Picasso was owned by Paris art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who turned many previously unknown artists into stars.

Erich Slomovic, Vollard’s Croatian-born assistant, came into possession of the works in the summer of 1939 after Vollard was killed in a car crash.

With Europe careening toward World War II, Slomovic took 141 pieces, which included works by Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Mary Casatt, Andre Derain and Pablo Picasso, and stowed them away in the vaults of Paris bank Societe Generale, in hopes that they would elude the grasp of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

Slomovic fled to his native Yugoslavia but was eventually caught by the Germans and sent to the gas chambers.

For more than three decades, the remarkable horde he had hidden from the Nazis gathered dust inside the bank vault. When officials finally opened the vault in 1979 and discovered what was inside, it sparked a monumental series of court battles as the Vollard and Slomovic families battled it out with competing claims to the artistic treasure trove.

Most of the seven score works sold Tuesday were drawings and prints and sold for modest prices, according to CBC News.

Among the top lots:

  • $925,700 for Pablo Picasso’s Le Repas Frugal, a drawing of a gaunt man with his arm around a woman.
  • $662,990 for Edward Degas’s La Fête de la Patronne, a sketch made inside a brothel.
  • $401,258 for Paul Gaugin’s Trois Têtes Tahitiennes, a charcoal drawing of three heads.
  • $324,280 for Le Chapeau Épingle, a coloured sketch of a woman in a hat, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
  • $216,506 for a Man Ray self-portrait.

The highest-profile piece was the 1905 painting Arbres à Collioure (Trees in Collioure) by French artist André Derain, which sold last week in London. It went for almost $28 million.

A Paul Cézanne oil portrait of his childhood friend, the writer Émile Zola, considered rare, was among Tuesday’s lots, but did not sell.

Sotheby’s head of impressionist art, Samuel Valette, said the artist destroyed most of his portraits of Zola “because he didn’t think they were good enough,” CBC News reported.

Vollard’s heirs are to get the lion’s share of the proceeds, the media outlet reported.

(Above: Le Chapeau Epingle, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir)

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