By Marine Pennetier
PARIS, Feb 7 (Reuters) - A French art collector claims to have found the head from the nude body that appears in a famously explicit 19th Century oil painting of a woman's genitalia.
Art expert Jean-Jacques Fernier, who has studied the works of Gustave Courbet for years, told Reuters he believed an unsigned painting of a woman's head, featured in this week's Paris Match magazine, had been cut off his masterpiece "The Origin of the World".
An anonymous collector named by Paris Match as "John" told the weekly he bought the painting from a Paris antiques dealer in early 2010 for 1,400 euros ($1,900) after spotting it nestled between old furniture and knick-knacks.
Fernier said the painting appeared to have been chopped off a bigger work and the weave of its canvas exactly matched that of Courbet's graphically erotic 1886 work, which shows just the torso of a woman lying on her back.
"The Orsay has a piece of the work ... and this face is another piece," said Fernier, who thinks Courbet cut the head off to protect the model, believed to be Irishwoman Joanna Hiffernan, erstwhile lover of the painter James Whistler.
Courbet, a leader of the Realist movement, is believed to have painted his most provocative work as a commission for Turkish-Egyptian diplomat Khalil-Bey, a flamboyant society figure who kept the canvas in his bathroom behind a green curtain.
"Khalil-Bey was not able to buy this piece because it wasn't possible to sell such an erotic painting at that period in time, it was unthinkable," Fernier told Reuters. "When Khalil-Bey bought (the Origin painting), Courbet removed the head."
John told Paris Match he had taken his painting to several experts before one told him she was convinced it was a Courbet.
That prompted him to study the painter and spot a similarity in tone with "l'Origine du Monde", on display at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris since 1995.
Being the matching head would give John's painting a value of some 40 million euros ($54 million), Paris Match said. He hoped to loan his painting to the Musee d'Orsay so the two could be displayed together, the magazine said.
French daily Le Figaro doubted the story, however, noting there was no recorded evidence that the Origin painting had been cut away from another and quoting other experts as sceptical of Fernier's theory.
The Musee d'Orsay declined to comment. ($1 = 0.7469 euros) (Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)