Henri III en prière au pied de la Croix (Henri III in prayer at the foot of the cross), late 16th century. Photo: © Ader-Nordmann

PARIS – A painting of the French king Henri III (1551-89) that disappeared from the Louvre during the Second World War turned up at a Paris auction last week. The work was found by a curator at the Château de Blois thanks to an internet search alert, and will soon return to the Louvre.

The small portrait depicting Henri III at prayer, estimated at €400-€600, was due to be sold on Friday, 17 October, in an auction of antique paintings, furniture and art objects held by Ader-Nordmann at the Hôtel Drouot. Days before, the assistant curator of the Château de Blois, Pierre-Gilles Girault, who had curated an exhibition in 2010 called “Fêtes et crimes à la Renaissance, la cour d’Henri III” (Renaissance celebrations and crimes, the Court of Henri III), was notified of the sale by a keyword alter on a website specialising in public auctions. Girault knew the work had once belonged to the Louvre, but that any trace of it was lost during the Second World War. Thinking he had found a copy from the same period, he called the Louvre, which after examination, identified it as the missing original.

Painted in oil on paper mounted on panel, the portrait dates to the end of the 16th century and is an important piece of royal iconography. Contemporary images of Henri III are rare, and even more so in this form. Instead of depicting court life, this image testifies to the Catholic king’s piety, at a time when tensions in France were at their peak in the Wars of Religion.

The work was removed from the sale and will soon be back in the Louvre’s collections. There have been calls, however, for the Louvre to loan the work to the Château de Blois, in appreciation of its eagle-eyed curators. It would also be a fitting location for the portrait as Henri III escaped to the royal palace in the Loire valley during the wars, and it was there that he assassinated his chief rival, the Duke of Guise. Séverine Petit