A Rodin sculpture discovered by chance in a furniture storage unit has been unveiled in Pau.
The 72cm high plasterwork of a naked, muscular man carrying a young woman bears the sculptor’s engraved signature and was a preparatory work for Rodin’s bronze sculpture "I am beautiful".
For years, the small statue on a pedestal was displayed in the apartment of an old lady in the town, and later in her retirement home room in the Basque Country, where she ended her days.
It went unnoticed until the death of its owner in 2013, when it was spotted in a box in furniture storage in Biarritz.
Patrice Carrère, the auctioneer and head of the Gestas & Carrère auction house who made the discovery, was dumbstruck: "This is a moment that will remain engraved in my memory and career," he said.
He remembers his surprise when he found himself face to face with the work: "My first thought was: 'No it is not true, it is not possible!'” he said. “The plaster has traces of the master’s fingerprints and nails.”
It took experts four months to authenticate the work, believed to have been created in 1885 and which they value at €700,000.
How is it that no one noticed such an important piece before? "It is very dusty and dirty so it doesn’t catch the eye,” said Rodin specialist Elisabeth Maréchaux. “And you can’t spot the signature easily - you have to look hard to see it. People might have presumed it was a plaster reproduction of a sculpture by Rodin."
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Research will now begin into the sculpture’s back story. "We have a unique piece, an unknown piece that probably has a story that we will discover little by little," says Jérôme Le Blay, founding member of the Auguste Rodin Committee.
"Here at the Rodin Committee, every year we discover two or three pieces, mostly from French private collections, that allow us to gain further knowledge of Rodin.”
This latest Rodin find has already been classified a "national treasure" by the Ministry of Culture, which prevents it from leaving France for 30 months.
After the death of its owner, some indirect heirs made themselves known and they will decide the sculpture’s fate.
Meanwhile, it is being exhibited this afternoon at the Gestas & Carrère Pau sales office.