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The Renoir Estate Collection includes hundreds of personal letters, photos and other memorabilia such as Renoir's trademark polka-dotted silk scarf, spectacles, marriage licence and a notebook full of critics' reviews. Heritage, who will offer the archive in 143 lots on September 19, have estimated its value at $3m.

The cache, recovered from Les Collettes, the artist's residence in Cagnes-sur-Mer, remained with Renoir's heirs in Houston, Texas, until mid 2004 when - via a Florida art dealer - the Renoir Trust consigned it to a Mid-Atlantic auction and appraisal company Hantman's Associates of Rockville, Maryland. Paul Renoir, son of the artist's youngest child Claude, died, aged 79, four months before the May 14, 2005 sale. That sale was to prove disastrous for all parties.

When the archive (offered as a single lot with a $250,000 low estimate) failed to attract a bid, Hantman's marketed the collection privately and received a $135,000 offer. The 'buyer' insisted Hantman's had accepted their offer and filed a lawsuit asserting their right to the collection, while the Trust sought damages from the auctioneers after receiving a cheque for just $100,100, reflecting the proceeds of the sale less Hantman's commission.

Legal Resolution

The legal machinations that followed discussed whether the parties had the authority to sell (Hantman's catalogue contained unusual conditions-of-sale terms regarding the right of the consignors to sell the material) and whether the case should be subject to Texan or Maryland law.

That the case was not settled until 2008 ensured it was Hartman's last sale - the 2005 catalogue is still prominent on the home page of a now redundant website. Heritage say their vendor, the buyer at the sale in 2005, offers the material with 'free and clear' title.

From Renoir's own catalogue raisonné and his dossiers on fake paintings to correspondence with Rodin, Monet and Manet and prominent dealers and collectors such as Vollard, Bernheim-Jeune and Durand-Ruel, there is much here of academic and historical significance. A small still life of two dead birds,Woodcocks(estimate $80,000-$120,000), the only painting in the sale, is believed to be Renoir's last work, painted some hours before he died.

In addition, the sale includes 19 original plaster maquettes, created during Renoir's twilight years between 1913 and 1918. Although not part of the Hantman sale they were subsequently acquired by the consignor from the Renoir family.

These too have a history of litigation. As crippling arthritis had nearly paralysed Renoir's hands, at least some were made with the help of a young assistant, Richard Guino, who was recognised by a court as the co-author in 1973. Attempts to cast the plaster models in bronze editions led to a legal battle with the Guino family over copyright - a case settled in 2008.