143 Renoir works, personal items to be auctioned off

NEW YORK - Some 143 letters, photos, plasters, drawings and personal items that once belonged to Pierre-Auguste Renoir will be sold at auction on Thursday, despite protests from the Impressionist master's great-grandson.

Heritage Auctions, which has organised the sale, expects the lot, billed as the largest collection of Renoir memorabilia, to bring in some $3 million (S$3.7 million).

Renoir's glasses, his signature polka-dot scarf, his marriage certificate and letters written to him by friends and contemporaries such as Claude Monet, Edouard Manet and Auguste Rodin will be put under the hammer.

Also part of the sale is the painting "Les Becasses" - The Woodcocks - completed only a few hours before the artist's death at age 78 on December 3, 1919.

The entire collection belonged to one of Renoir's grandsons, Paul, who moved to the United States and sold the belongings before his death in 2005.

In France, Jacques Renoir, the artist's great-grandson denounced the "dismembering of Renoir's private life by publicly selling family memorabilia... including personal objects, personal letters and photographs including Renoir on his death bed."

In an open letter to French Culture and Communication Minister Aurelie Filippetti, the Orsay Museum in Paris and the Renoir Museum in the southeastern French city of Cagnes-sur-Mer, he expressed his desire for the two institutions to buy some of the items.

The sale has generated "huge" interest, according to Brian Roughton, managing director of fine arts for Heritage Auctions.

"Various museums have been here, French museums mainly," he said, refusing to name exactly which ones, but saying "that the most major of all have been here to go through the collection."

The lot was purchased from Paul Renoir by Rima Fine Arts gallery, in the southwestern state of Arizona. Heritage has not named the seller, but Rima Fine Arts has advertised the event on its Facebook page.

Jacques Renoir's anger doesn't go very far with Roughton, who says the artist's possessions unquestionably belonged to Paul Renoir and his wife.

"There has never been a dispute that they owned it. They first consigned it as one lot - they wanted to sale the whole thing. At that point, if Jacques Renoir wanted to buy it, he should have bought it, it would be his," he said.

Among the most items anticipated to fetch the most money is the "Grande Venus Victorieuse," a large, 1.8-meter (5-foot-11-inch) sculpture by Renoir and a young assistant, Richard Guino, valued by the auction house at $900,000 to $1 million.

"Becasses," Renoir's last painting, has been valued between $80,000 and $120,000, while the various letters have been priced between $2,000 and $10,000 each.

Two letters from Renoir's wife, Aline, are among some of the least expensive items, with a pre-sale estimate of $500 to $700 for both.

The auction also includes 20 original sculptural plaster maquettes created during Renoir's final years with the help of his assistant Guino, at the painter's Les Collettes home in Cagnes-sur-Mer.

The maquettes were produced after arthritis nearly crippled Renoir's hands, forcing him to have assistants tie a paintbrush to his right hand.