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‘Lost and found’ priceless artwork to be exhibited

A painting by French artist Fragonard, which had been given up as lost, has been found and is set to appear in a new exhibition in Grasse (Alpes-Maritimes, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur) from May 25.

Named l’Oiseau Chéri, the painting was discovered by art historian Carole Blumenfeld, and identified as the work of great painter, Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

It shows a woman in a grey silk dress holding a small child up to the light (below), and is in the recognisable style so loved by the hedonistic court of Louis XV.

The work has now been acquired by collector sisters Anne, Agnès and Françoise Costa, who oversee the Fragonard collection of their parents Hélène and Jean-François Costa.

It will go on display with the rest of the collection at the Musée Jean-Honoré Fragonard de Grasse, at the end of the month.

The painting was last known to belong to 19th century art collector François Marcille, and was at one point wrongly attributed to Marguerite Gérard, Fragonard’s sister-in-law.

It was sold in Rouen in 1980 as such, and had been lost since then, despite attempts to find it by painting specialists Jean-Pierre Cuzin and Pierre Rosenberg.

Yet, art historian Ms Blumenfeld became convinced the piece was the original, lost Fragonard work when she stumbled across it just over six months ago.

Despite a thick layer of varnish making identification more challenging, Ms Blumenfeld said she was certain “it was a Fragonard” due to the telling detail - “like a sculpture” - of the child depicted.

The Costa family swiftly bought the work, even before the six months of required restoration by restorer Isabelle Leegenhoek had taken place.

Ms Blumenfeld said: “[The Costa sisters] had the audacity to believe me and trust me. You need courage to buy a painting on which you can see so little.”

Jean-Honoré Fragonard was an 18th century artist. Born in Grasse in 1732, he was known as a prolific painter and printmaker, in the Rococo style of the Ancien Régime.

He travelled and trained extensively through Italy and the rest of Europe, before returning to France and becoming a favourite of patrons of the wealthy court of Louis XV. He even decorated the apartments of the king’s mistress, Madame du Barry.

Fragonard’s star dropped considerably after the French Revolution, during which most of his patrons were exiled or killed.

He then returned to Grasse, before ending his days in Paris in 1806. His work was almost forgotten until the end of the 19th century, but he is now recognised as one of France’s great painters.

In 2013, his portrait of François-Henri Duc d'Harcourt sold for £17,106,500 (€19,463,280) at Bonhams auction in London, making it the world’s most expensive auctioned work.

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