Editor’s Note: Worthologist Christopher Kent, an antiques and collectibles generalist, mediated a family feud that resulted in a Great Find.
I was asked to take part in a Historic Richmond Town (Staten Island, N.Y.) fundraiser and was excited to do so because since a kid, I felt an affinity for walking through restored or reconstructed historic villages. My Saturday at the event would be spent appraising with a big auction Sunday.
I was hearing, as I appraised, wonderful stories about found items—dumpsters in Manhattan still the best location for finding treasures—when an elderly couple came to the table.
Was it possible that the Fezziwigs, the couple from Charles Dickens’ “The Christmas Carol,” had popped out of the book and appeared in front of me, rosy and round and cheerful? They giggled and jostled as they unwrapped what appeared to be a painting.
As I studied it, I asked the stock questions—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.”
And where did she get it? Her mother brought it from Naples at the turn of the last century.
Pan pipes and nymphs are nun-cell no-nos
The nun was not allowed to have decoration in her convent cell and certainly nothing as frivolous as this. I was holding a fragment of a painting, meaning a portion of the original painting, that had been cut down to about 24-inches square. It depicted a wild, pastoral scene with dancing nymphs and shepherds and Pan pipes being played.
Stylistically, it was clearly 17th/18th century, and the condition was excellent. I had a gut feeling as to the painter. But where was the rest of it?
“Well,” the Fezziwigs said, “that’s an interesting story in and unto itself.”
At this point, there were about 40 people waiting to have items appraised. 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.
Four sisters not playing nice
Well, it seems that there were four sisters and one item that they each wanted to take to New York—the painting.
Months before the trip, they jockeyed for ownership of the piece. Days before the sisters were 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. Weren’t they were going to live there together?”
No, they would dock and go off in different directions.
Daddy’s, 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 and proceeded to cut the painting into four equal pieces, handing each daughter a square.
On the journey over, the sisters had a complete falling-out, blaming each other for their father’s rash action. After docking, each gave the other the distinctive digital gesture in the vernacular of Naples and parted, painting fragments in tow.
“Why don’t you call the relatives and get the pieces back?” someone in the crowd asked.
“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 even cut apart, this painting might be valuable. I asked to examine their fragment in a laboratory. I also urged them to contact the owners of the other fragments and negotiate getting them.
Forensics weighs in
I took the painting to a forensic lab in D.C. My feeling was that it was late-17th century, done in the style of Salvador Rosa.
Rosa is known, in some circles, as a second-string Italian Baroque painter. His works were considered by his contemporaries and by art historians as flamboyant and sublime. His historical and allegorical paintings 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.
The tests from the lab confirmed that the pigment and canvas were 17th century, the stretcher new and that we could possibly have a Rosa or at least an “in the school” or studio copy. I gave the Fezziwigs the news and asked them to please begin the arduous work of contacting the relatives. They already had, and one of the quarters was on its way.
To cut to the chase, within six months, I had all the pieces—one being sent in a paper-towel roll. I took the fragments to a conservator who began literally piecing the painting together.
Within another six months, the painting was intact and exquisite. I asked some colleagues to have a look at the painting. 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 auction details and put the painting up for sale. End result: $20,000 for 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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