How did a trove of family memorabilia from French impressionist Pierre Auguste Renoir wind up for sale in a Rockville Elks Lodge?

And why did the sale generate sputtering fury in France and legal recriminations in the United States?

For more than three months, 2,000 personal items from the renowned 19th-century painter have lain in limbo in a warm Rockville warehouse. The massive collection of Renoir mementos was included as part of a May 14 general antiques auction by Paula Hantman. The Potomac resident conducts a couple of auctions a year, typically on the ground floor of the Elks Lodge at 5 Taft Ct.

The auctions are often a mix of celebrity and general antiques. In July 2003, in New Jersey, she sold more than 300 lots of personal Kennedy family material, including the president's Navy-issue boxer shorts, which went for $6,000 to a bidder in Ireland.

It was through the success of her Kennedy auction that Hantman was recommended to Paul Renoir, the painter's grandson. Renoir had the family archival material and personal artifacts in his home in Houston. He told Hantman that he had inherited them from his father, Claude, who had received them from his father, the famous painter. For decades the material had been in the basement of Les Collettes, the painter's home in Cagnes-sur-Mer in southern France.

Paul Renoir, who got the material after Claude's death in 1969, thought it was worth about $1 million. He had tried to get that much for it 20 years ago. There was no interest.

Although Pierre Auguste Renoir had many heirs, Paul Renoir had the archives and claimed the sole-heir title.

Last year, at age 79, he decided it was time to sell the archives. Hantman's, despite its small operation, was the one to do it, he concluded.

The massive accumulation was carted to Maryland. For the next 10 months, Hantman's helpers and experts, including Allan Stypeck, owner of Second Story Books, examined the documents.

"It's been that long in the works," she said at the auction's preview in May. "We had to translate all these documents and get them organized. When we received it, everything was literally in boxes, so they had to be gone through and read through to make some sort of sense as to what was really here."

It was an intimate record of the life and career of a brilliant, influential artist, a French icon.

Renoir produced the third most expensive painting in history. "Le Moulin de la Galette" was sold by Sotheby's in New York to a Japanese businessman in 1990 for $78.1 million. (He overpaid. After he died six years later, the painting was resold by Sotheby's for $50 million.) The hoard delivered to Hantman did not include any important paintings. But it did include 40 letters to Renoir's wife, Aline; 21 letters to Aline from family and friends; her jewelry box; family photo albums; birth and death certificates; financial documents; Renoir's eyeglasses, a polka-dot red scarf, a cigarette holder; dossiers regarding his paintings, drawings and sculpture; ceramics and porcelains; letters from contemporaries such as Manet, Rodin and Monet; and son Claude's World War II military papers.

There were 114 glass negatives of family and friends, 56 copperplate negatives of Renoir works, letters to and from son and legendary film director Jean Renoir, dresses belonging to Claude Renoir's wife, Aline's silk shawl and kimono, an American Medal of Honor from a 1883 Boston exhibit, a pair of French Legion of Honor medals, and much more.

Hantman and her experts estimated the archives to be worth $250,000 to $350,000. Paul Renoir agreed, making provisions in the contract for proceeds to go to the Renoir Trust in the event of his demise. The Renoir Trust is essentially Marie-Paule Renoir, his second wife.

Paul Renoir died in January, four months before the auction, in Texas at age 79.

Hantman said at the auction's preview that she hoped it would be purchased by "an institution, presumably French, so it could returned to the Renoir Museum in the south of France or in the Louvre or some similar institution."

A week before the auction, French-born Isabelle Sanchez-Tintenier, now living in Kensington, was startled to learn Renoir's personal possessions were about to be sold in America -- and only a few miles away. She had seen an ad for it in a Maine antiques magazine.

"I said to myself, 'Something is wrong. This is impossible. How come these things are in Maryland? Have they been stolen?' My first reaction was to inform the authorities," she said.

Mounting a one-woman campaign, she e-mailed the French Embassy, museums in France and the European press, sounding the alarm that France's heritage was about to be sold off. Reporters from Le Figaro in Paris and the Times of London jumped on the story.

"How on earth has Renoir's personal archive, including his birth and death certificates, his letters to his wife, and nearly 2,000 other items turned up for sale at Hantman's, a little-known auction house near Washington, DC?" the Times of London wrote May 11. "Apparently up to now there has been little interest" declared a revealing sentence.

"It makes me sick in the heart to see the life of my great-grandfather displayed like that in a public market," Sophie Renoir, a niece to Paul, told the Times.

"How can they let such heritage leave France?" asked Le Figaro. "What can we do?"

"I did what I had to do," Sanchez-Tintenier said. "If I didn't alert the press nobody would have known about the sale."

Hantman said she advertised the auction in antique trade papers. There were few, if any, ads in large dailies on either side of the Atlantic. She was aiming for the collector, investor and museum curator.

She says she mailed catalogues to French museums. The week before the event she was optimistic yet wondered why the French weren't banging down her doors. Or the Japanese.

"In terms of the art community's response to it, right now it looks soft," a puzzled Hantman said at the near-empty preview.

Sunday, May 8, found few people witnessing the odd juxtaposition of Renoir in a Rockville Elks Lodge.

"I'm surprised there hasn't been a strong reaction after all the advertising we've done both here and in Europe," Hantman said. "This is an international incident that we have this collection. Will it remain here or will it reside in France or another European country?"

The Renoir material was Lot 1, the first of more than 500 lots to be offered that Saturday, May 14. The planned 10 a.m. start was delayed an hour because of behind-the-scenes wrangling, including a last-minute fax to France.

Hantman eventually took the podium and announced the historic nature of the auction. She explained that if no single bidder wanted the whole lot, she would sell it by the piece the following Monday. The audience numbered fewer than two dozen, Sanchez-Tintenier said.

Hantman asked for an opening bid of $150,000. No hands went up. No phone calls from Paris. Nothing.

"I was absolutely stunned," she said later. "We blanketed institutions worldwide with catalogues and information that the property was coming up for sale. There was no presence of the French museums whatsoever."

Hantman quickly went on to Lot 2, a pair of Turkish cuff bracelets, not something of Renoir's. She sold a few more random lots, and then she was stopped by a woman in the audience. It was Sanchez-Tintenier.

"I know you are not supposed to interrupt an auctioneer," Sanchez-Tintenier said later, "but I wanted to know if the Renoir material had sold, and did it sell for only $150,000? It all went very quickly, one or two minutes, then she started selling Lot 2," she said.

Sanchez-Tintenier was sitting with a few other French, including Roland Celette, the embassy's cultural attache.

Hantman replied that, no, the Renoir material had not sold. But if there was anything in particular that she would like, a person could come back Monday and leave a bid.

Celette was delighted. "A museum asked me to be there and buy some things," he said. Specifically, he said, the Renoir Museum, in the artist's house in Cagnes-sur-Mer, needed more personal items. He said the house has very little Renoir material. He was thrilled to be able to bring some back.

Over the weekend, he called Hantman to confirm the Monday sale. She told him the auction had been canceled.

Celette said the following days saw increased negotiations with the French Mussees National, the parent organization that governs all the museums and makes purchases in their behalf.

He said French museums had been aware of the auction but weren't interested because of the high estimate. He said "$250,000 was way too expensive" for a collection with "nothing of extreme importance to the history of art. There is no major thing in it, no paintings."

In the days after the auction, Roland Celette said all signs appeared positive for the collection to return to France. "They had agreed on a price," he said.

Then Hantman told the French to stay home.

"She sent them an e-mail telling them the collection was no longer for sale," Celette said. After scrambling to raise the funds, the French were suddenly shut out.

Hantman, apparently, had found another buyer while waiting for the French to get their act together.

"This was news to us," said Jeffrey Dorrell, the Houston attorney for Marie-Paule Renoir, Paul's widow. "We were told the French lost interest." In fact, he said, the French were prepared to pay $175,000. "We were lied to," he said.

The Renoir consignment agreement, Dorrell said, did not include a reserve price, the bottom line below which something cannot be sold at auction.

He said after the auction that he and Renoir received an offer for $135,000, which she turned down.

Two days later they were sued by the man who made the offer, Dorrell said. The buyer, Charles Slane of Galena, Ohio, filed suit June 8 in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, claiming Hantman had accepted his offer and given him a letter that was a valid bill of sale, something Paul Renoir's widow could not void.

On Aug. 22 the suit was dropped after Renoir agreed to the sale. "We were bound by that contract," said a displeased Dorrell. "We instructed Hantman's auction to release the collection to Charles Slane." Hantman had "apparent authority" to sell it. But Dorrell isn't going down without a fight. On behalf of the Renoir Trust, he has filed a suit in Texas against Hantman's auction company, seeking "several million dollars in damages."

It now appears Renoir's possessions will be shipped from the Rockville warehouse to Ohio in the next week or so. Hantman's critics worry the material is being sold off piecemeal, but Hantman said in a July 22 phone interview, "The collection is intact. Nothing has been piecemealed out."

Marie-Paule Renoir is not talking to the media but believed the collection "was worth up to 1.5 million" dollars, according to Dorrell. She does not have much money "and was planning to use the proceeds from this sale to live on," he said. He estimated that the sale, after commissions and expenses, would net about $75,000 for the widow. "She's pretty devastated. She can't understand how something like this could happen. She was sentimentally attached to the collection."

Hantman's attorney, Jordan Spivok of Bethesda, did not return repeated calls. Slane's attorney also did not return calls.

An original photograph of Pierre Auguste Renoir was one of 2,000 personal family items auctioned for the estate of the painter's grandson, Paul Renoir. The sale later was contested by his widow.Among the items put up for auction was Renoir's Legion d'Honneur Chevalier medal, which he received for artistic achievements.