London (CNN) -- A study for Paul Cezanne's master work "The Card Players," missing for decades, has been rediscovered among the paintings of a Texas art collector, and looks set to sell for more than $15 million when it goes under the hammer later this year.
The watercolor, one of the preparatory sketches for Cezanne's five painting series, was only known from a black and white photograph, having last been seen in public in 1953, and was presumed lost.
But the immaculately preserved work was found earlier this year in the collection of Texas medical expert and art collector Dr. Heinz F. Eichenwald, and will be sold at Christie's in New York on May 1.
The auction house predicts a great deal of interest from collectors in the piece, which is expected to fetch between $15 and $20 million.
"For a full-size study from this series to come to light now, when it was feared to have been lost to history by scholars and collectors alike, marks a pivotal moment in the art market," said Sharon Kim, international director of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie's.
The figure in the image has been identified by Cezanne scholars as Paulin Paulet, a gardener on the painter's family estate, the Jas de Bouffan, near Aix en Provence in the south of France.
Paulet is the only person to appear in all five of the finished "Card Players" works, which were the subject of a major exhibition at London's Courtauld Institute and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last year.
The watercolor study was originally bought by Eichenwald's parents, who brought it with them to the United States when the family fled the Nazi occupation of Europe in the 1930s and settled in New York.
Eichenwald, who trained as a pediatrician in the U.S. and went on to become a renowned specialist, died last September at the age of 85. He was a keen art collector, and several of his other paintings and sculptures will feature in Christie's New York sales on May 1 and 2.
"The 'Card Player' series is one of the most important of the modern era, influencing so many of the painters who sought to follow in Cezanne's footsteps," said Kim.
"[It] offers us a rare glimpse into [his] artistic process, showing us how he worked through the pose and positioning of the characters that would come to populate his greatest masterpieces."
Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) was one of the most influential Post-Impressionist painters; a childhood friend of the novelist Emile Zola and a contemporary of Manet, Monet, Renoir and Degas. His works were a major influence on the development of Cubism: Picasso referred to him as "the father of us all."