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The Potomack Company September Catalogue Auction. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paysage bords de Seine. Estimate $75,000-$100,000.

On September 29, 2012, art watchers will witness the culmination of one of those rare events the market lives for: the appearance of a long-lost and newly rediscovered treasure. The Potomack Company of Alexandria, Virginia, will auction a tiny landscape sketch believed to  be Paysage bords de Seine, a lost painting by the great Impressionist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  The picture, whose location was last documented in 1926, turned up recently in a West Virginia flea market where a local buyer paid $7 for it because she liked the frame. Thankfully, before discarding the picture, the new owner decided to have it evaluated by the staff at Potomack, just in case. And the rest is history.

We love these stories because—in spite of what one might conclude from watching Antiques Roadshow, Pawn Stars and American Pickers—they are actually extremely rare. I have spent most of my adult life as an art researcher, auctioneer and appraiser, and I can only cite two times that the hair on my neck stood up because I knew I was in the presence of a missing masterpiece.

It’s not because things don’t get lost. They do, everyday. For every magical story of lost-and-found there must be thousands of cases of lost-and-lost. And we like to imagine that it couldn’t happen to us, that we’d know how to recognize what we have and that it will be properly appreciated by those who come after us.

But I’ve examined the Renoir sketch first-hand and can easily understand how such an unassuming little painting might escape notice as it passed from hand to hand down the generations.

Ask yourself: does your spouse know the origin and significance of every piece of furniture you brought to the marriage? Do you know the provenance of everything you’ve ever bought in an antique shop? Do your children know which artist drew the little mother and child study on the mantelpiece? Would your estate executor know what’s original, what’s reproduction; what’s a treasured part of your family history and what’s just stuff?

If the answer is no, you’ll understand why appraisers and estate attorneys place so much emphasis on documenting everything now. Hiring someone to inventory your household contents is an expense that will save you time and hassle now.  More importantly, it can spare your family costly mistakes later. As one local businessman put it to me recently, “if you think getting a professional appraisal is expensive, wait til you learn the true cost of not getting one.”

For the lucky flea market shopper, whose discovery carries a pre-sale estimate of $75,000-100,000, the little Renoir represents a wonderful dream come true. But for another family, it represents something else entirely: loss, neglect, error, heartache.

Every story of a treasure found is also the tale of a treasure lost. How will you write your family history?

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