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.

Again, Emmanuel insists the company did well, selling a lot of product with distribution in Safeway stores, until problems with "finance" killed it, this time because of the ailing Houston economy.

What happened next is a bit difficult to ascertain. The mere mention of the water business causes any member of the Renoir family to visibly wince in pain. Marie-Paule will say only that it is a "sensitive issue" with the family. And for good reason. Popo, who died in 1987, became a pawn in the family's seemingly never- ending maneuvers to land ownership of the water company. The family claims Emmanuel tricked Popo into signing over ownership of the company. Paul then tried to wrest back control by having Popo sign over power of attorney. Emmanuel claims Paul used the statue to obtain another loan to sue him in a lengthy court battle that hinged on Popo's competency.

"We had about ten lawyers who for long period of time argued over nothing," Emmanuel says. "By the time we reached an agreement, there was no more company." Court documents show that Paul was indeed guardian of Popo and her estate, and that the Venus Victrix statue was used as collateral for a loan from Russo. Oddly, Nathalie remembers seeing the statue on display in the lobby of one of Russo's banks during this time.

Paul Renoir is now affiliated with the Arjang Gallery, whose owner's best-known work is a bust of Ronald Reagan.
Deron Neblett
Paul Renoir is now affiliated with the Arjang Gallery, whose owner's best-known work is a bust of Ronald Reagan.

In the end, the bank reclaimed the drawing, and the Venus Victrix ended up in the hands of Russo. When Russo's Charter National Bank finally foreclosed on Marie-Paule's house, she and Paul told the bank they could "throw them out." Which eventually the bank did. When the ordeal was over, Emmanuel fled to Canada to try his hand at starting a line of Renoir-brand cafes, jewelry and biscuits.

The only Renoir work of note left was a plate-sized medallion of a young Coco's head in profile. For some time, Paul had been trying to squeeze money out of it by casting the medallion and selling reproductions for around $5,000 apiece. When Emmanuel left, the family claims, he took one of the cast medallions with him and made a second-generation mold of it. They say he even improved upon Pierre-Auguste's work by rounding the flattened top, which had been shaved to make it fit beneath the fireplace mantel. Emmanuel claims to be selling an entirely different medallion. However, the photo of the piece looks similar to Paul's, except for a rounded top and slightly smaller dimensions. (Each generation mold produces slightly smaller sculptures because the metal shrinks during cooling.) Second-generation or no, Emmanuel had the marketing savvy to sell nearly all of the 1,000 he produced through the Internet and other means, while Paul sold only 30 or so of the 150 he produced.

When, in an odd turn of events, nine of Paul's remaining medallions were stolen in an armed robbery in September 1999, he would fare no better when attempting to make an insurance claim. The insurance company's appraiser tracked down Emmanuel to help ascertain their value. Nathalie went to hear the appraiser's offer and was informed that Emmanuel was willing to replace the so-called $5,000 medallions with special "limited edition" ones for a modest $500 apiece. Paul could accept his son's offer or take $500 cash per medallion.

Emmanuel seems genuinely surprised by this. "What stolen? No … I passed [a medallion] on to an associate on the project, and he made a deal and [the appraiser] bought one … of my new edition. He wanted to see if it was the same or not … and I don't know if he was happy with the result because I never heard from him again."

The medallions were never recovered.

With no originals left to pawn, the archives have become the last vestige of the Renoir estate. With the help of his wife and her daughter, Nathalie, Paul has been meticulously cataloguing each of Renoir's works, with the hopes of making a complete and current catalog of all of Renoir's existing pieces. Unlike the museums devoted to many of Renoir's contemporaries, Les Collettes has become embroiled in political red tape and infighting among city officials, and little has ever been done with it.

Paul had hoped to build a smaller version of the home and garden in Houston. "We wanted to have like a museum and put all the archives in there," Marie-Paule says. "That was Paul's dream." They approached museums and universities. Everyone seemed interested, she says, but no one wanted to put up the money. "In business, I'm not good," Marie-Paule admits. But they still cling to their last remaining hope: "You can do anything with this name. If I had $10 million, I'd do it myself, but I don't. I have to ask other people to help." Now, they'd be happy simply to find a buyer.

"I wish we could have done it like the Picassos did," Marie-Paule sighs. "The Picassos, they went in businesses. They used the name and sold the name and whatever. Paloma Picasso is a granddaughter of Picasso. She's a businesswoman. She makes purses with Picasso and jewelry and all these things. You need money to do that, darling."

The Renoirs arrive at Cafe Montrose, where a Renoir limited-edition lithograph hangs on the wall. They have forgotten to put one of Paul's cards on the frame. "No matter," Marie-Paule says, trying to shrug it off. They get a special seat arranged in the back, and Paul is actually talkative tonight. It appears there are some stories Marie-Paule hasn't heard after all. At one point, she has a lively conversation with the owner, a fellow Belgian, in their native tongue.

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