French mechanic finds ‘long-lost Renoir’ online for €700

Lyon resident Ahmed Ziani, who has been buying and selling art after losing his job as a mechanic, may have stumbled across a long-lost masterpiece by French painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

French mechanic finds 'long-lost Renoir' online for €700
An art expert examines a different Renoir painting. Photo: Paul J Richards/AFP

Browsing classifieds site Le Bon Coin, Ziani thought he was buying an unsigned piece by 18th-century artist Vernet, and offered €700 for the work.

But once the painting arrived, Ziani's 11-year-old son spotted the almost illegible signature 'A. Renoir' and date of 1864 in the corner of the 96cm by 76cm painting, Le Progres reports.

After reading a Renoir biography, Ziani has identified the piece as Soir d'Eté (or “Summer Night” in English), painted by a 23-year-old Renoir before he had developed his distinctive impressionist style.

Soir d'Eté was exhibited at the Salon de Paris in 1865 along with one other Renoir work, Portrait of William Sisley, which is now owned by the Musee d'Orsay. Since this public display, Soir d'Eté has been listed as a 'missing work' by France's National Art Institute.

A classification number is visible on the back of Ziani's painting, but the National Museums' Archive's records from after 1853 are missing, so it is not possible to see what this number corresponds to.

Ziani has now sent the artwork to a specialist lab in Bordeaux to work out whether it is genuine.

Researchers so far have confirmed that the pigments in the painting are compatible with other Renoir pieces from the period, and the thin canvas and framework are similar to those preferred by the painter, but it could take months for them to come to a judgment as to its authenticity, particularly as there is very little information about Soir d'Eté.

It's been a good year for long-lost art in France. Back in April, a family clearing out the attic of their house in Toulouse to try to fix a leaky roof stumbled across what is thought by many to be a genuine Caravaggio painting. It was classified as a 'National Treasure', which means there is a 30-month ban on it being exported, until experts can determine its authenticity.

If this painting turns out to be authentic, Ziani could be in for a serious payout. Another painting by Renoir, Bal au moulin de la Galette, became one of the most expensive paintings in the world when it was sold for $78 million at Sotheby's in 1990.

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.