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Great Finds—A Nun’s Fragment

by Christopher Kent (11/15/08).

Editor’s Note: Worthologist Christopher Kent, an antiques and collectibles generalist, mediated a family feud that resulted in a Great Find.

Maybe you, too, were one of those nerdy kids that felt an affinity for walking through restored or reconstructed historic villages. Peering into history while wearing a tricorn hat and jabbering on about the Elizabethan influence on Colonial domestic dwellings while eating a plate of apple pandowdy and speaking in what you thought was an English accent.

I may have just revealed too much about my childhood. But I know there are others like me out there, so I feel relatively safe in exposing myself. At the drop of a hat if the opportunity arose to visit Colonial Williamsburg, Deerfield Village, Old Sturbridge or downtown Philly, I was ready and waiting beside the old Packard to make the trip.

Historic Richmond Town here I come

So it’s no surprise that when I was asked to do an appraisal and auction day in aid of the Staten Island Historical Society’s Historic Richmond Town, I jumped at the chance. If you’ve never been there and that sort of thing does something for you, go. Historic Richmond Town is New York City’s historic village and museum complex that includes the earliest Colonial period to the 19th century.

The town center is beautiful, and the preserved houses capture a part of history that is transporting. I’m waxing here. I’ll get to the point.

But where, oh where in the world is Historic Richmond Town?

My assistant and I arrived at the town center only after having our cabdriver pull over to ask directions. He was from Sri Lanka and not familiar with Staten Island—or maybe Manhattan island, for that matter.

The lady we approached in the middle of her brisk morning cardio-walk, lavender jogging suit, perfect hair and nails, started to give us directions. To a native, I’m sure they were simple. To a visitor, who admits to being directionally challenged, I was lost after the first “turn right.”

I surprised her by getting out of the cab, extending my hand with introduction and explanation, asking her name—it was Delores—and would she be willing to be kidnapped and take us to the town center as time was not on our side. I assured her that our driver would bring her back to her house. “Sure,” she said. She made a call to her husband to keep breakfast warm, and we became new best friends as we chatted the distance across Staten Island.

Helping to raise funds

My part in this event was to assist in raising money for Historic Richmond Town. Saturday would be spent doing appraisals, x-amount per item, then a big auction on Sunday. The volunteers were well organized, people had been given numbers and were patiently waiting in line, and there must have been about 100 all eager and clutching items of various shapes and sizes.

I heard, as I appraised, wonderful stories about found items. Dumpsters in Manhattan still being the best location for finding treasures. I was looking and appraising with a lift to the spirit that things could still be found in unlikely places when an elderly couple came up to the table.

Framed fragment

Could it have been possible that the Fezziwigs, the couple from Charles Dickens’ “The Christmas Carol,” had popped off the page of the book and appeared in front of me? There they stood, rosy and round, cheerful and lit from within with an infectious joy and wonder that about knocked me over. They giggled and jostled as they unwrapped what appeared to be, by the size and shape, a painting.

As I studied it, I asked the stock questions of where did you find this, inherit it, buy it.

“We inherited it from an aunt who was a Carmelite nun living in a convent in town, Manhattan.” Interesting.

“Where, I wonder, did she get it?”

“From her mother who brought it over from Naples at the turn of the century.”

“Apparently,” they added, “she rolled it up and brought it over in her willow trunk. We had it framed when we inherited it.”

Pans pipes and nymphs are nun-cell no-nos

The Carmelite nun was not allowed to have decoration in her convent cell and certainly nothing as frivolous as this. What I was holding was a fragment of a painting, meaning a portion of the original painting, that had been cut down from the original. The portion that I was holding was about 24-inches square and consisted of a wild, pastoral scene at the edge of densely wooded forests with jutting rocks upon which nymphs and shepherds danced and played Pan pipes.

Stylistically, it was clearly 17th/18th century, and the condition was excellent. I had a gut feeling that I knew who had painted it. But where was the rest of the painting?

“Well,” the Fezziwegs said, “that’s an interesting story in and unto itself.”

At this point, there were about 40 people waiting to have items appraised, and my assistant was giving me the hairy eyeball. I desperately wanted to hear the rest of the story and suggested that the couple come back later and tell me about it.

“No,” 25 of the 40 people said in unison. “We want to hear the story.” The horde crowded the table and waited expectantly. The Fezziwegs were thrilled by the attention.

Four sisters not playing nice

Well, it seems that there were four sisters and one item that they each wanted to take with them that had any value from Naples to New York—the painting.

Months before the trip, they started jockeying for ownership of the piece, beseeching their parents to part with the painting that they had grown up with. The parents vouchsafed no knowledge of how they had gotten the painting, although the Fezziwegs said that it was in exchange for something else. Bit of a shadow there sounding like magic beans and a cow.

Days before the sisters were about to leave, the decision as to whom was getting the painting had yet to be made.

“But,” I said, “they were all coming to New York. I assume they were going to be living there together.”

No, they would dock there, and each was going off in a different direction.

Daddy takes, sort of, Solomonic action

At this point, the bickering had reached a head. The father, exasperated, took the painting off the wall, out of the frame, off the stretcher and proceeded to cut the painting into four equal pieces, handing each of his daughters a square. Horrifying—but amazing.

On the journey over, the sisters had a complete falling-out, blaming each other for the rash action of the father. When they docked, each gave the other the distinctive digital gesture in the vernacular of Naples and went their own way, painting fragments in tow.

“Why don’t you call the relatives and get the pieces back,” someone in the crowd asked, “and then put them all together?” Good thought.

“Well, the sisters never made peace, and even though we know where the relatives live, no one has spoken to each other in years,” Mr. Fezziwig explained.

I told the couple that trying to reunite the pieces was a great idea because, even cut apart, this might be a valuable painting. I asked to examine their fragment in a laboratory setting. I also urged them to contact the various owners of the other fragments and negotiate getting them back. Contact information was exchanged, and to my surprise, the couple handed over the painting to my safekeeping.

Forensics weigh in

With the weekend over, I took the painting to a forensic lab in D.C. My feeling was that the painting was late-17th century and was done in the style of Salvador Rosa, the artist on whom I had done undergraduate work.

Rosa is known, in some circles, as a not a first string but second-string Italian Baroque painter. His works were considered by his contemporaries and by art historians as flamboyant and sublime. His landscapes are both wild and turbulent. His historical and allegorical paintings, with a de’ Medici as a patron, were infused with a vitality and directness that defined in your face in 17th-century terms.

A Salvador Rosa painting

The thought that this fragment could be attributed to this master of the theatrical was beyond exciting to me. It was not until Rosa reached the age of contrition, which was early as he died relatively young, that he produced some of the most poignant religious-themed paintings.

The tests from the D.C. lab confirmed that the pigment and canvas were, in fact, 17th century, the stretcher new and that we could possibly have a Rosa or at least an “in the school” or a studio copy. I contacted the Fezziwigs, told them the news and asked them to please begin the arduous work of contacting the relatives. They already had. One of the quarters was being shipped as we spoke.

Experts agree—almost

To cut to the chase, within six months, I had all the pieces, one being sent to me in a paper-towel roll. With the permission of the owners, I took the fragments to a conservator who began the process of literally piecing the painting together.

Within another six months, the painting was intact and exquisite. I had contacted some of my colleagues in the U.S. and England to have a look at the painting. This confab caused some professional-ego feathers to fly, but in the end, there was a 99.9-percent consensus that it was a Salvador Rosa.

With the consent of the disparate Fizziwig clan, I had an independent brokerage firm negotiate the auction details and put the painting up for auction. End result was $20,000 for the sale of the painting and a family I think is now reunited, although there was some grumbling.

– Christopher Kent is a member of the WorthPoint board of advisers and director of evaluations for WorthPoint. He is also an antiques and collectibles generalist, fine-arts broker and president of CTK Design.

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