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  • Renoir’s great grandson embroiled in “$1 billion art fraud”
    A plan to market thousands of reproductions is revealed in an Arizona courtcase
    September 10, 2005 By Nadim Samman

    SACRAMENTO. According to documents filed in an Arizona court, Jean-Emmanuel Renoir, great-grandson of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, has lent his name to what one lawyer claims could be the “biggest art fraud in history”, a plan to market hundreds of thousands of works inspired by Renoir-Guino sculptures (see box, p.48) to which the artist’s descendant does not hold copyright. Projected revenues are over $1 billion.

    The artist’s great grandson has played a significant part in the “House of Renoir” a venture to which Mr Renoir has given indefinite use of his family name.

    The venture was set up in 2003 by Scottsdale gallery owners Tracy Penwell and Dror Darel. A business plan for the House of Renoir was produced in the same year by Ms Penwell. It states that exploitation of the Renoir sculptures could produce income in excess of $1 billion. Much of the money was to be made through “aggressive brand development” of the Venus Victrix, one of 11 plaster sculptures and molds that Mr Renoir sold, along with copyrights, to Ms Penwell’s Scottsdale gallery, Rima Fine Art, for $1 million in 2003.

    Described by the late Renoir authority Paul Haesaerts as “the most consummate and complex of his sculptures”, the Venus Victrix was to become the subject of 400,211 “limited” reproductions in marble and bronze ordered by Rima Fine Art. Work casting the Venus, and two others, Bust of Mme Renoir and Bust of Paris, has already begun in an Arizona factory; according to the local newspaper Arizona Republic, a large Venus Victrix was recently for sale at Rima Fine Art for $150,000.

    Under the terms of the business plan, Mr Renoir would receive 10% of the wholesale revenues of the “fine art” reproductions, in return for signing certificates of origin and endorsing House of Renoir products. The business plan states that merchandise and licensing strategies for Pierre-Auguste’s work will to be aimed at “the most Neanderthal of art fans” and will include “kitchen, bath, bar, furniture, patio & garden, office, novelty, clothing & accessories, cosmetics and toiletries, food & spirits, jewelry, sports & games and pet categories”, to be sold through national retailers such as Costco. Among the more populist pieces are a toothpaste holder, Venus Victrix bookends and Venus à la Pomme candlesticks.

    A court case which is now at the deposition stage and is due to be heard later this year could threaten these ambitious plans. It is being brought by the Société Civile Succession de Richard Guino, which represents other Renoir heirs and the heirs of Renoir’s assistant, Richard Guino, against Ms Penwell’s company. They are arguing that the House of Renoir does not possess legitimate rights to reproduce Renoir-Guino works.

    The thrust of their claim is that Mr Renoir, although a descendent of Pierre-Auguste, does not hold the copyright for any of his great-grandfather’s work, that all copyrights are controlled by descendants of Richard Guino and that a French court took this position when it ruled, in 1998, that Mr Renoir and his mother Louise Hernandez had promoted “forged castings”. In 1999 a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge upheld the French verdict and fined Mr Renoir, a resident of La Jolla, California, $500,000, which was never paid. The lawyers argue that Mr Renoir’s transfer of copyright to Ms Penwell was unlawful.

    In papers filed before a Sacramento court, Renoir-Guino lawyers make the claim that the House of Renoir’s projected income make it the “largest fraud scheme in the history of the art world, dwarfing such art fraud schemes perpetrated by art fraud confidence men such as Guy Hain”. Hain produced hundreds of fake bronzes in France in the late 80s and early 90s. The plaintiffs are also worried that large-scale reproduction of the sculptures will have a devastating impact on the value of authorised Renoir-Guino works.

    Meanwhile, a number of investors who have put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the scheme are awaiting the outcome of the court action. One investor, who put in $265,000, said in a deposition that she was told she could make millions from her investment. “I am talking to my lawyer, I don’t mind when I get my money back, today, tomorrow, or in the future, but I want it back”, she said.

    In a curious twist, another investor, Charles Slane, who put $900,000 into the plan, has just brought a lawsuit against the Maryland auction house Hantmans, after he attempted, and failed to buy the Renoir archive, which was left unsold in June. The Art Newspaper’s attempts to reach Mr Slane’s lawyer were unsuccessful, and Phil Flemming, attorney for Ms Penwell, did not return calls to his office.