It will now be offered by Enchères Champagne d’Epernay on June 26 with an estimate of €1.5m-2m.
Called by a lawyer to make an estate inventory in an apartment in the Marne, Antoine Petit of the auction house Enchères Champagne in Epernay, northern France, was immediately struck by an oval painting depicting an elderly man leaning over a pile of books hanging high on the wall of the drawing room.
Taking it down to examine it further, “my feeling was confirmed when I had it in my hands: the painter’s touch was clearly expert”.
Furthermore Petit discovered a faint, barely visible inscription on the frame reading Fragonard. “This inscription, as well as the high quality of the composition, had until then passed completely unnoticed,” he says.
Petit took the painting to the Old Master painting experts Cabinet Turquin who, following in-depth examination, confirmed the attribution to Fragonard. Un Philosophe Lisant (A Philospher Reading), measuring 18 x 22in (46 x 57cm) on the original canvas in its original frame and in a remarkably untouched state of preservation, has been in the same family for many generations.
Stephane Pinta of the Cabinet Turquin recalls that from the first glance when Petit sent him a photograph just after its discovery, Fragonard’s style was identifiable. “Despite the accumulated dust and the yellow varnish on the canvas, the strength of his painting remains perfectly recognisable,” he says.
The Cabinet has dated the work to c.1768-70. “The artist was in his 40s when he made this work, he reached the peak of his art and then allows himself great freedom in the execution of his paintings,“ notes Pinta.
There is another painting by Fragonard, also oval in format, depicting the same philosopher which is in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg. It is also now known that the painting discovered by Petit belonged to the miniaturist Pierre Adolphe Hall who was a friend of Fragonard and owned several of his paintings.