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LONDON (Reuters) - Paintings once belonging to Ambroise Vollard, one of the 20th century's most important art dealers depicted by Picasso and Renoir, go under the hammer this summer some 70 years after they were deposited in a bank vault.
Ending a lengthy legal dispute, the works will be auctioned by Sotheby's, with the highlight, a landscape by Andre Derain valued at 9-14 million pounds ($14-22 million), being sold in London on June 22 and the remaining 140 items in Paris.
The treasure trove was stored in a Parisian bank in 1939 shortly after Vollard's death and was part of a collection of drawings and paintings first offered for sale in 1981 by Societe Generale in order to recoup 40 years of unpaid storage fees.
But the sale was canceled when the heirs of Vollard and Erich Slomovic, the young gallery assistant who worked for Vollard and deposited the works at the bank, challenged it in court claiming the proceeds of the auction should go to them.
Slomovic, a Croatian Jew, had amassed his own collection of works by leading lights of French art and managed to get hundreds of them out of France to Yugoslavia during the war, according to specialist art journals.
But he was eventually detained by the Nazis and is presumed to have died at or on his way to a concentration camp.
Many of the works Slomovic took to Yugoslavia ended up in the National Museum of Belgrade, and accounts differ as to whether they were donated or seized.
The dispute over ownership of the treasure trove hidden in the Parisian bank was exacerbated by the fact that both Slomovic and Vollard died at around the same time -- Vollard was killed in a car accident in 1939 and had no direct heirs.
Sotheby's gave few details of the nature of the legal tussle, but said in a statement: "Those challenges now finally resolved, the works will now be sold by agreement among the legal beneficiaries of the Vollard Estate."
The Derain picture was painted in 1905 in the south of France when the artist spent the summer working together with Matisse. He was among a group of artists dubbed "les fauves" (wild beasts) for the bold colors they used.
"We are very excited to be offering the wonderful landscape by Derain in London in June," said Helena Newman, vice chairman of Sotheby's impressionist and modern art department.
"Its strong, fauve colors and powerful composition, combined with its extraordinary provenance, will be extremely appealing to today's international buyers."
The auctioneer will be hoping that the combination of the painting's appeal, its long disappearance and the dramatic story behind its survival will drive prices higher in the sale room.
Art prices, particularly for rare works, have recovered strongly from the sharp falls during the worst of the financial crisis, and records are tumbling once again.
Among the other lots on offer in Paris will be a Cezanne portrait of the author Emile Zola (estimated at 500-800,000 euros), a Picasso etching and a monotype by Edgar Degas.
Vollard helped to build the reputations of artists including Van Gogh, Gauguin, Maillol, Van Dongen and Matisse by staging one-man shows dedicated to them.
His status as one of the great art dealers of the last century was underlined by the exhibition "Cezanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde" held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2006.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato