Scraps of paper? No, they're Matisse's last masterpiece

Previously unseen cut-outs by father of modern art donated to museums by his family

A cache of unfinished collages and cut-outs by Henri Matisse is to be revealed to the world for the first time, offering a tantalising glimpse of works that might have been created by one of the giants of 20th century art.

The collection of 1,000 pieces of paper emerged from the artist's family, who initially considered destroying them because they believed Matisse would not have wanted them seen in a raw state of creativity.

Henri Matisse himself destroyed many of his own art works.

The material includes birds, petals, a circus elephant and geometrical patterns, which Matisse never had a chance to shape into finished compositions before his death. They have never been exhibited and art historians were unaware of their existence.

The collection has been split evenly between two museums in northern and southern France, both dedicated to Matisse – one in Cateau-Cambrésis, his birthplace, the other in Nice, where he settled. Patrice Deparpe, curator of Cateau-Cambrésis, said: "It's completely unique ... Nobody has seen it before."

Matisse, who died in 1954, is a founder of modern art who is famed for sensitivity to line and colour. He created some of his most original works well into his eighties. Never fully recovering from a cancer operation, many of his cut-outs – drawings with scissors – were produced when he could not stand at an easel to paint. "The paper cut-out allows me to draw in the colour," he once said.

Until now, the material had remained with his family. A friend, who declined to be named, emphasised that these are not works in their own right: "We knew they were there but they were in a big package that had not been opened," the friend said.

The family had two options, she explained – "to destroy the whole thing, which (Matisse) probably would have wanted (or) ...put them in a very safe place ... Fifty years have passed ... and they looked beautiful. It would be devastating to destroy them."

She added: "If Matisse was here, he would probably be pissed off. He would say that, either ... keep them and use them for something or... they have to be destroyed." For that reason, she said, the donation of the art to both museums is "on condition that they will never be moved from there".

Patrice Deparpe said: "Our museum was founded by Matisse himself in 1952. He made a very big gift of 89 paintings, drawings and sculpture. The family have [since] given works and documents ... We have a covered market near the museum which we have just bought. We are going to expand the museum and show the paper cut-outs."

Matisse's great-grandson, Georges, sent photographs to The Independent, but declined to make any comment.