The stash was hidden away in a Paris bank vault at the start of World War II and forgotten for decades. On Tuesday, the long-lost treasure trove of Renoirs, Cezannes, Degas, Gauguins and Picassos brought in $4.3 million at auction in Paris.
Sotheby's offering of 139 works amassed by visionary Paris art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who turned unknown artists into stars, was a sale art lovers had awaited for years, partly because of the collection's history and mystique.
An Edgar Degas brothel scene — a monotype of prostitutes popping Champagne and wearing little besides their stockings — sold for $629,711. A Pablo Picasso print of an emaciated couple drinking wine and eating bread brought the highest price of the night, $880,000.
Many of the works sold are prints and drawings. They are in pristine condition, kept safe from light and damage in the bank vault, said Andrew Strauss, vice president of Sotheby's Paris.
"In a way, people are buying directly from Vollard, one of the greatest dealers," he said.
The tale leading up to the auction contains many twists and turns — and unsolved mysteries.
Vollard died in a car crash in 1939, two months before World War II broke out. Some of his collection came into the hands of a young Yugoslav acquaintance named Erich Slomovic, in circumstances still unclear.
Slomovic sent some of the collection home to Yugoslavia in diplomatic suitcases, and many of those works are held today by the National Museum in Belgrade. He put others in a vault at Societe Generale bank in Paris.
Then, Slomovic, a Jew, was killed by the Nazis in 1942. The bank vault was forgotten until 1979, when clerks opened it up, hoping to sell some of the contents off to recoup unpaid storage fees.
A sale was planned at Paris' Drouot auction house in 1981 but was canceled by court order once Vollard's heirs contested the sale. After a lengthy legal battle, a French court granted a small fraction of the works to Slomovic's heirs and gave most to Vollard's heirs. The dealer's family handed their collection to Sotheby's for sale.
The highest-profile piece was already sold in London last week. The 1905 painting "Arbres a Collioure" (Trees in Collioure) by French artist Andre Derain went for nearly $24.5 million.
One of the highlights of Tuesday's sale was a Paul Cezanne oil portrait of his childhood friend, the writer Emile Zola. But because of an error in the bidding process, it didn't actually sell, Sotheby's said.
The portrait is rare. Cezanne destroyed most of his portraits of Zola "because he didn't think they were good enough," said Samuel Valette, Sotheby's head of Impressionist and modern art in Paris.
Zola, whose friendship with Cezanne later soured, complained in a letter about the painter's perfectionism: "Maybe Paul has the genius of a great painter, but he'll never have the ability to become one. The slightest obstacle drives him to despair.