It's not often that a painting by Degas comes to light – especially when it is one of the artist's famous depictions of dancers. Bonhams' Director of Impressionism, William O'Reilly describes the thrill of discovery

Auctioneers and art dealers often talk of new discoveries, lost masterpieces and hidden treasures. Those moments are undoubtedly the most thrilling part of gathering lots for an auction: a cold call from an unfamiliar town, a story of an ancestor who had done business in China, a great uncle who was in Paris in the 1890s.

With fine art, particularly paintings of the past 150 years, these rediscoveries are much less common. Artists' work is often cataloged and published as soon as it leaves the studio, and neat signatures ensure that descendants are less likely to forget about a work. Many apparent rediscoveries are simply over-ambitious attributions, and the modern auctioneer's inbox overflows with images of ersatz-Monets and knock-off Van Goghs. But paintings do disappear from the published record – although rather than being lost, it is perhaps more accurate to describe them as being enjoyed privately, away from the glare of the market.

One such remarkable reappearance, from one of the great names of art history, will be included in Bonhams' sale of Impressionist and Modern Art in New York in November. Degas' jewel-like oil painting Danseuses et contrebasse is a beautiful example, both of his characteristic ballet scenes and of the innovative compositions that made him so influential both with his fellow Impressionists and painters through the 20th century. Despite this, the painting has not previously been published in the extensive literature on the artist or appeared in any of the monographic exhibitions. Instead, it passed through the hands of a number of connoisseur-collectors until a descendant approached Bonhams in May 2014 and the photograph landed on my desk. Subsequent research has revealed the painting's fascinating history and rehabilitated it in the eyes of the experts on Degas' oeuvre.

Danseuses et contrebasse is from a group of paintings and works on paper made as the artist became inspired by the new art of photography. The tightly cropped composition takes the form of a snapshot, with the corps de ballet captured in the glare of the stage lights above the dark of the orchestra pit. The scroll of the double bass sends a strong diagonal jutting across the composition, pulling the viewer into the front row of the stalls, the most prestigious seats. This immediacy, the capturing of movement in the bravura brushwork of the dancers' swirling skirts and limbs, the apparently arbitrary framing, and the contrasts of dark stalls to acid-accented dancers and richly painted backdrop, all mark Degas as a prophet of an entirely new way of painting.

Although the painting itself was not known, an oil sketch of the composition in the famous collection of Baron Louis de Chollet was published in the supplement to the Degas catalog raisonné in 1982. The sketch, like the painting, carries Degas' signature rather than the estate stamp applied to all the works still in his studio at his death. It is most likely therefore that both works were sold through Degas' principle dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel. A close friend of the artist, Durand-Ruel was the leading promoter of Monet and Pissarro, among many others, and the prime force behind the development of Impressionism.

Early on the dealer identified America as a key market for this new direction in art. In 1874 he sold the first Degas in the US to Louisine Elder, later Mrs Henry Osborne Havemeyer, who was advised by Mary Cassatt. Havemeyer, a New York sugar magnate, went on to form with his wife an astonishing collection of Impressionists, largely from Durand-Ruel's gallery in Paris and after 1886 from the gallery in New York. The collection now forms the basis of the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Although we don't know when the painting crossed the Atlantic, Danseuses et contrebasse followed the same path as the Havermeyers' Degas, and reappeared via the agency of the established New York firm of Scott & Fowles in the collection of another sugar baron, Hunt Henderson of New Orleans. Henderson's collection, assembled in the early 20th century, was perhaps the finest group of modern works in the American South. It included remarkable pieces by Monet, Renoir and paintings and drawings by Degas, later augmented with works by Picasso, Braque and Georgia O'Keefe. Degas' mother was from a New Orleans family, and he visited the city in 1872-73 where he painted A Cotton Bureau in New Orleans, now in the Musée des Beaux Arts, Pau.
Hunt Henderson was a leading figure in New Orleans cultural life, and a founding trustee of the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art (forerunner of the New Orleans Museum of Art). His avant-garde taste for paintings put him in conflict with Ellsworth Woodward, the conservative acting director of the museum, who described these masterpieces as "daubs". The rift was not resolved at the time of Henderson's death in 1939, and rather than the expected bequest to the museum, the collection remained with the family until the death of Henderson's widow, when it was dispersed.

Danseuses et contrebasse was purchased by the passionate collector Jack Josey of Houston, Texas, for the Lenoir M. Josey Collection. Josey, oilman, war hero, philanthropist, and son of legendary wildcatter, Lenoir M. Josey, who was a descendant of a signatory of the Texas Declaration of Independence, built an impressive collection of Impressionist paintings. Danseuses et contrebasse featured in small exhibitions from both the Henderson and Josey collections, in New Orleans, Chicago, Oklahoma City and Amarillo, but was still overlooked by Degas scholars.

These collectors must have relished Degas' genius, and loved the sense of atmosphere through which the viewer can almost feel the heat of the footlights and hear the pulsing rhythms of the double bass. In their private enjoyment they had no need to alert the wider art world of their treasure.

I first had an opportunity to examine the painting on the West Coast this summer, and then when it arrived at Bonhams in New York, I studied it, following its tracks through archives in Europe and America and discussing its merits with international scholars. Danseuses et contrebasse has once more emerged into the wider world of Degas connoisseurship, and on November 4 will take the next step on its journey.

William O'Reilly is Director of Impressionist and Modern Art, Bonhams Americas and Asia.

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