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NEW YORK (Reuters) - An intricate wooden bust carved by Paul Gauguin is expected to sell for as much as $15 million when it is auctioned on May 3, according to Sotheby's.
"Jeune tahitienne," which was carved by Gauguin during his first trip to Tahiti between 1891 and 1893, depicts a young, unidentified Tahitian woman and includes jewelry which Gauguin made himself using seashells and pieces of red coral.
A piercing left on the ear is believed by experts to have once held a flower, and two foxes carved in the back of the neck represent a sort of signature Gauguin often used, with the foxes being representative of sexuality.
"It's rare to see a piece of art of such great quality and with such a great story," said Simon Shaw, Sotheby's head of Impressionist and Modern Art. "It's truly unique."
The 9.5 inch-high carving, which has not been seen in public since 1961, was given as a gift to then 10-year old Jeanne Fournier, the daughter of French art critic and collector Jean Dolent.
"His sculptures weren't very well received by the French avant-garde art world at the time, even though he considered them his greatest achievements," Shaw said. "Fournier probably responded in a much more positive and visceral way."
Fournier later gave the sculpture to Father Celas Rzewuski, a Dominican priest, who in turn handed it over to Sotheby's, who sold it to its current owner.
The sculpture is the only fully-worked bust Gauguin is known to have made. He is better known for his post-impressionist paintings, many of which depict scenes from the years he spent living in the islands of French Polynesia. After an initial voyage from 1891 to 1893, Gauguin eventually moved there permanently and it is where he later died.
Shaw said that Gauguin's fascination with French Polynesia stemmed from his desire to escape modern life and his former career as a stockbroker in France, something that resonates with many of his modern-day enthusiasts.
"After he left the banking industry, he became a real escapist," Shaw said.
"He wanted to get away from crowds and modernity. He went looking for another world beyond the modern world," he added. "Something about this desire for escape and finding an alternative reality really has great resonance for today."
Throughout April, the bust will be exhibited in Hong Kong, London, and New York.
Reporting by Bernd Debusmann Jr., editing by Patricia Reaney