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Renoir Trove in Legal Limbo After Failed Auction

Heirs of Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) have filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Paula Hantman and Hantman’s Auctioneers of Rockville, Md., following a failed auction of the artist’s personal belongings last May.

NEW YORK—Heirs of Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) have filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Paula Hantman and Hantman’s Auctioneers of Rockville, Md., following a failed auction of the artist’s personal belongings last May.

The suit, which seeks damages of about $5 million, was filed on behalf of Marie-Paule Renoir, Houston, the widow of the artist’s grandson Paul Renoir, and the Renoir Family Trust in the district court of Harris County, Texas. It claims that Hantman’s “committed fraud” and “breached its fiduciary duties” when the house struck a deal to sell the collection to an Ohio buyer for $135,000 after the failed auction without the consent of the consignors. Neither Paula Hantman, president of Hantman’s, nor her attorney Jordan Spivok returned phone calls seeking comment on the suit.

On May 14 Hantman’s offered the Renoir “personal artifacts and archives collection” in Rockville with a minimum bid of $250,000. The sale was also simulcast in a live eBay auction. On offer as one lot were more than 2,000 of the artist’s personal items, including family photographs, documents, spectacles, a silk scarf and numerous letters to his wife and sons.

According to the Hantman’s catalogue the collection had been consigned by Paul Renoir, son of the artist’s youngest child, Claude, also known as Coco. “As part of his inheritance, Claude had received Renoir’s home Les Collettes, at Cagnes-sur-Mer in the South of France, which contained most of the personal property,” the catalogue introduction stated. The collection also includes a watercolor and several small drawings retained over the years by the family of Claude and Paul Renoir.

Paul, who had initially consigned the collection to the auction house in June 2004, died four months before the sale, at 79, in Texas. According to published reports, Paul had tried to sell the trove for around $1 million 20 years before, but his attempts proved unsuccessful.

Several European newspapers, including Le Figaro, expressed surprise and dismay that the artist’s personal collection had landed on the auction block at a U.S. venue and seemed unlikely to be returned to France. The artist’s great-granddaughter Sophie was quoted in a news report as saying, “It makes me sick in the heart to see the life of my great-grandfather displayed like that in a public market.” Renoir is one of the top-selling artists of all time at auction. The record for the third-most-expensive work ever sold at auction was the $78 million paid at Sotheby’s in 1990 for Au Moulin de la Galette.

The Hantman’s catalogue contained what are considered unusual conditions-of-sale terms regarding the right of the consignors to sell the material: “We disclaim any knowledge as to the sellers’ right to offer such items for sale or ability or right to deliver or perform following the sale. Disputes arising out of the foregoing issues or any other issues concerning the sale or purchase of an item are solely the concern of the Buyer and Seller.”

Jeffrey Dorell, a Houston attorney for the Renoir Trust and for Marie-Paule Renoir, told ARTnewsletter he did not see the language until the catalogue had been printed. “It is my opinion that The Renoir Trust had good title and would not have needed to make broad disclaimers of the warranty of title,” he says. In comparison, auctioneers Christie’s and Sotheby’s require consignors to provide proof of title as well as the fact that a given work is free of any liens. At the May 14 sale at Hantman’s, the minimum bid was not met, and the lot was passed over.

The claim brought against Paula Hantman and Hantman’s by Marie-Paule Renoir and the Renoir Trust contends that “after failed attempts to successfully auction the collection,” Hantman’s attorney Spivok telephoned Renoir Trust attorney Dorrell to convey information of a private offer of $175,000, from a buyer described only as a “French museum.” Though Marie-Paule agreed to the offer, the claim states, the sale was never consummated.

On June 3 Spivok again phoned Dorrell, the claim continues, to convey a separate private offer of $135,000. Moreover, on June 5 Paula Hantman placed a direct call to Marie-Paule Renoir in Texas to discuss the offer, the claim states, adding that Marie-Paule said she was not interested in selling the collection for $135,000 and rejected the offer. However, the claim continues, Hantman’s had “already sold the Renoir collection for $135,000.”

In June, following the auction, Paula Hantman had told ARTnewsletter in a phone interview that negotiations with interested parties concerning the Renoir collection were ongoing. However, a few weeks later, Hantman said the collection had been “revoked” by the Renoir Trust.

On June 7 Ohio buyer Charles Slane, who had made the $135,000 offer, sued the Renoir Trust in the U.S. District Court of Maryland, “citing breach of contract,” the Renoir Trust lawsuit says.

It further states that “appended to Slane’s complaint in the Maryland lawsuit was a copy of a memorandum dated June 3, 2005, signed by Paula Hantman, stating: ‘This letter serves as confirmation of your purchase of the Pierre- Auguste Renoir Personal Artifacts and Archives Collection for $135,000.’ ”

The Renoir Trust claim against Paula Hantman further states that “at no time before Slane filed suit did Defendants [Hantman’s and Paula Hantman] disclose to Plaintiffs [Marie Paule Renoir and Renoir Trust] the existence of the June 3 ‘confirmation.’ Hantman’s held the Renoir collection ‘hostage’ and did not return it to the Renoir Trust.”

As of August 18, the date the Renoir Trust filed suit against Hantman’s and Paula Hantman, the whereabouts of the Renoir collection were unknown by the Renoir Trust since Hantman’s “refused to disclose to Plaintiffs the location of the collection,” the suit maintains. In addition, Hantman’s “kept Slane’s money and refused to release the collection to Slane.

On August 19 Slane dismissed his lawsuit against Marie Paule and the Renoir Trust. Slane did not respond to ARTnewsletter’s requests seeking comment on the matter.

On Sept. 8, Dorrell told ARTnewsletter, he understood from Slane’s attorney’s that “the collection has been moved.” Dorrell further said Paula Hantman “has had the $135,000 since June 3, 2005.Hantman’s has not released any of the money to my client.” As ARTnewsletter went to press, Hantman’s had not responded to the lawsuit filed in Texas.

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