May 16, 2022 2:03 pm

Cat for hare? In the least expected place a beautiful painting can become a masterpiece

Cat for a hare or hare for a cat? Although they are not frequent, surprising cases appear in the history of the art market, such as the one revealed this week by the British historian Christopher Wright, who for decades had in his possession an original painting by Anton van Dyck, a piece he had bought for just US$ 89. In informal garage sales, in attics or in flea markets, they have appeared from a Pollock for five dollars, photographic negatives offered at US$ 45 but valued at US$ 200 million or a precious object of Tsar Alexander III that had disappeared during the Russian Revolution.

Historian Christopher Wright and Pippa Balch, curator of the Courtauld Institute of Art, next to the painting that this week revealed to be a Van DyckGentileza Christopher Wright

Wright had, without knowing it, for years in his living room the portrait of the Infanta of Spain Isabel Clara Eugenia, by Van Dyck, a piece whose market price at auction today is 50 thousand euros. Until this week, Wright was unaware of the value of that canvas he had acquired in his youth, seduced merely by its beauty, without further information about its authorship or commercial potential.

Art is, although it sounds like a paradox, in addition to inspiration and gift, merchandise, a means of payment and an investment, and, therefore, principles can emerge in it that do not exactly seek order, but rather trap. The news shocked the world. Last April, in a Madrid auction house, a painting that was about to be auctioned off for 1,500 euros led to a year-long investigation. It was the Prado Museum that warned about the possible authorship of that painting: Caravaggio himself. After an exhaustive report and after the Spanish government took various precautions, such as declaring it an Asset of Cultural Interest, the case was closed a few days ago and the work, Behold Hommowill remain in Spain. It is currently guarded by the colnaghi gallery, which belongs to the Pérez de Castro family. Caravaggio is one of the cursed artists whose works have been coveted for centuries by pirates of the art world. Judith y Holofernes it had been found in 2014 in a Toulouse attic and sold to an American tycoon for $110.

"Behold the man"  would have been painted by Caravaggio
“Ecce Homo” would have been painted by CaravaggioArchive

The whereabouts of stolen works of art can be very dissimilar. A Henri Matisse sketch that had disappeared in 1948 was found last May in a closet in a small French town called Manosque. Matisse, at the request of the Rockefeller family, drew Hèléne Mercier, one of his muses, daughter of the Russian prince Lev Golitsyn and Helena Gagarine. The price of this sketch could range between US$342 thousand and US$456 thousand. In another loft it also appeared in 2021 knight with band, a painting that had been made by a young Joaquín Sorolla. The one who verified the authorship was the great-granddaughter of the Spanish painter and the one who alerted about the original was the restorer who received the piece from the family that had had it in their house and who was just looking to “clean” it, as it transpired at the time. The painting was purchased by the Spanish government for $91,000 at auction and donated to the museum bearing his name in Madrid.

So far, stories of finds, but what happens when works of art remain deliberately hidden? In October 2020, the Spanish police followed up to Brussels, after four years of investigations, the trail of Before the run, by Sorolla, a painting valued at US$3.4 million, which had disappeared moments after being offered at auction in New York. Another resonant case is the one in which last June the Greek police found an original Picasso (woman’s head, 1939) stolen from the National Gallery of Athens in a film made, in just 7 minutes, ten years earlier. It was in a warehouse about 50 kilometers from Athens along with another Mondrian work.

They found in 2020 in Greece the Picasso painting, "woman's head", which had been stolen a decade earlier
They found in 2020 in Greece the Picasso painting, “Head of a woman”, which had been stolen a decade earlier– – Eurokinissi via ZUMA Wire

In 1996, Teri Horton, a retiree, was looking near her home in California for a gift for a friend. The anecdote gave rise to the documentary Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?, from Harry Moses. Horton, a lifelong truck driver, a woman of modest status and education, paid just $5 for a huge, colorful canvas that her friend refused because she didn’t have enough room to hang it in her home (or maybe it wasn’t Of your liking). Some time later, Horton wanted to sell it and it was then that he knew he had an original Pollock in his hands, whose first purchase offer was US$ 2 million. Horton, who was asking for $50 million, died in 2019 without having sold the piece.

Pollock had a tortuous life, which oscillated between alcoholism and tragedy. At the age of 44, he lost his life in an accident without having left a will. In 2017, a painting appeared in a garage in Sun City, Arizona, along with other Los Angeles Lakers collectibles. An art expert, Josh Levine, contacted to appraise the pieces, has no doubt even today that among those objects is an authentic Pollock, an untitled work valued at US$15 million, despite the fact that the Pollock-Krasner Foundation never finished certifying its authenticity.

Some buyers are seduced by the colors of a painting, others prefer sobriety. In a garage sale, a Californian artist named Rick Norsigian bought in 2010 a box containing 65 glass photographic plates at the modest price of US$45, an antique that caught his attention because of the resemblance of those images to those of the famous photographer Ansel Adams. Finally, it was found that, indeed, those negatives, valued today at US$ 200 million, had indeed belonged to the artist. Since Adams’s studio burned down in 1937, much of his material has been missing, so much so that it is unknown what has managed to be saved from the fire and what has been stolen by opportunists.

In 2014, a junk dealer, whose identity has not been revealed, found a very striking object in an antiques market in the United States: an Easter egg that contains a clock inside. It turned out to be an object designed in 1887 by the Russian jeweler Carl Fabergé that had belonged to Tsar Alexander III. When the former scrap dealer, now a millionaire, wanted to sell the piece, they offered him US$ 8,000 for it, a fact that soon made the new owner of the supposed trinket distrustful. The Wartski house later verified the authorship of this 8.2 cm piece, made of gold and sapphires, which had disappeared during the 1917 Revolution.

Carl Fabergés designed jewelry and precious objects for the Russian tsars
Carl Fabergés designed jewelry and precious objects for the Russian tsarsKindness House Wartski

In the goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, the Pulitzer-winning novel, a teenager carries with him throughout the plot the canvas of the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, and he does it in his worn backpack. How many treasures are waiting to be discovered to recover their essence: to be admired for their beauty and sophistication? What precious objects will we keep, perhaps, without knowing it, in our homes?

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