What's in a Name?

Paul Renoir once had it all. But after years of botched business deals, he has virtually nothing left of his inheritance save the one thing he can't lose: His lineage to the famous painter.

Depending on who you ask, Coco eventually sold Les Collettes to the city out of financial desperation, spite for his lost childhood or as an act of philanthropy. The amount he received, again depending on the source, came to either a quarter of its value, or the symbolic sum of a dollar, in the hopes that it would become a museum. Regardless, at the age of 32, Paul found himself having to take up residence outside of Cagnes-sur-Mer for the first time.

Unlike the United States, where there is more emphasis among the rich to educate their children and prepare them for the struggles of the real world, the offspring of the European upper class are coddled. Paul had few skills that could support him outside the confines of the country club, except those gained simply by being a Renoir. For a time, Paul owned a doomed business with his father, doing the family trade of ceramics, which was passed down by Pierre-Auguste. The demand for handmade pieces faded with the cheaper and readily available mass-produced ceramics that flooded the market. Paul made do by authenticating Renoirs, pawning a few artworks and closing the odd business deal to augment the small royalties the French government still required to go to artists' families from the sale of their relatives' paintings.

Paul's son Emmanuel, whom many see as the black sheep of a rather dark flock, laughs when asked if his father ever had any money. "No, no," he says. "He's not a businessman."

The man behind the legacy: Pierre-Auguste Renoir and wife Aline.
Photo Courtesy of the Renoir Society
The man behind the legacy: Pierre-Auguste Renoir and wife Aline.
The family archives would become Paul's last piece of the Renoir fortune.
Courtesy Paul Renoir
The family archives would become Paul's last piece of the Renoir fortune.

Renewed hopes would come in the form of a stack of boxes that Coco left rotting in the cellar of Les Collettes. Apparently he never bothered to look inside, because he thought about burning them. "They are probably just scraps my father gathered. If you are at all interested in them, please take them," he told Paul, who was only curious enough to store the boxes for another ten years. When he finally took them out of storage, he would find photographs, ceramics, unpublished screenplays of Jean's and correspondence from Cézanne, Monet and Edouard Manet. This collection of discarded odds and ends would become known as the family archives. Among the boxes, Paul would also find the infamous cachet d'atelier Renoir, a stamp with the raised lettering of Pierre-Auguste's signature that, according to Paul, would be dipped in paint and affixed to the back of some of his grandfather's paintings for authenticity.

Paul would make much of the cachet. "Le cachet d'atelier Renoir alone assures the authenticity of a Renoir original or lithograph; nothing else would do," Paul would claim in the Renoir Society Journal, summarizing his oft-used pitch. "I, and I only, have the authority to apply the family cachet….Only a descendant of Pierre-Auguste Renoir has the knowledge, perfectionist expertise and natural empathy to recognize and retain the exquisite quality true to the spirit of Pierre-Auguste Renoir." He would enrage family members when he took the boast too far. "I acquired from the three Pierre-Auguste Renoir heirs … full interest in the Renoir name, giving me sole possession of the droits de représentations et reproductions and the exclusive rights of the Renoir name, signature and expertise."

Authenticating Renoir works would turn out to be Paul's most successful practice, and one he continues doing for small French galleries to this day. He seems to take the work seriously, and researches the family papers before applying the stamp. Museums, however, typically rely on experts who have widely published scholarly papers, and often will do laboratory tests to verify the paintings they acquire. Paul's later attempts to stamp lithographic reproductions of his grandfather's paintings to give them an added -- if you'll excuse the pun -- cachet, led to an investigation by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The paper questioned the significance of the stamp, stating, "Stamping the front -- or even the back -- of a painting is a practice unknown in the professional art world." The piece quoted a spokesman for Sotheby's auction house as saying, "There are no seals on the back of Renoir paintings. We identify them by expertise or by reference to a catalogue raisonné." Staff members at the MFA, however, recognize the practice as legitimate in some cases, and one of many things they consider when assessing a work.

Stamping reproductions would lead to trouble in the mid-'70s when Paul faced charges of mail fraud from the U.S. attorney's office, according to the San Antonio Express-News. The case concerned brochures offering "original prints" for $200 to $300 apiece, "signed from the seal in the artist's estate." The problem was that the prints were not created by Pierre-Auguste or from plates made in his lifetime, but from photographic reproductions, and the money had to be reimbursed. Paul "has always been honest, that's all I can tell you," Marie-Paule says, claiming her husband never met the man who put together that business.

Emmanuel claims that it was all the work of some low-key publisher in the south of France whom Paul met only once, briefly. "Only, [Paul's] name appeared in literature, and that's what tied him up with this kind of publishing," Emmanuel says. "I'm quite sure Paul never got a profit out of it."

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