Painting: A Cold Plunge

It was the most precious French prize to fall into English hands since Joan of Arc. At 2 o'clock one morning last July, a large crate was off-loaded at London airport. Inside was a 51-in. by 76-in. oil painting by Paul Cézanne. Called Les Grandes Baigneuses, or The Bathers, it had been purchased by Britain's National Gallery for $1,400,000, the highest published price ever paid for a French painting. Unlike Joan of Arc, the English were not altogether sure that they wanted it.

While The Bathers underwent routine restoration, British critics debated...

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