The Importance of Watson’s Insight

It’s not uncommon over the generations for family to forget the name of the person in the portrait who hung on the wall at Aunt Edna’s house for as long as anyone can remember. Auctions are littered with portraits of “Unknown Gentleman” or “Girl with Rose,” all from the “American school,” a euphemism for Unknown Artist.  Of course, the value plummets.  Two cases in point.

1. The Case of the Wrong Grandmother

George Caleb Bingham painted a prominent man and his wife.  Their daughter married another prominent Missouri man.  One side of the family kept the portrait of the man.  They lend it for exhibition frequently. Another side of the family kept the portrait of his wife and moved far away.  These descendants remembered the portrait was by Bingham, but for the sitter, their memories lost a generation. They began to call the subject by the name of her daughter. Without the correct name of the subject, when the family decided to sell the portrait the auctioneer could not verify the artist in the index of the Bingham Catalogue Raisonné.  The image was there if he had time to look through nearly 400 photographs (fewer if he had dated it).  He could only advertise the painting as “Attributed to George Caleb Bingham.” It is a matter of record that the portrait sold for $400 at a time when George Caleb Bingham portraits were selling privately from $25,000 to $50,000.  A year later the value of Bingham portraits increased again to an auction price of $62,500.  If the rule of thumb that an auction price is half the value of retail is true, then it pays to record your family history.

2. The Case of the Taped Name  

George Caleb Bingham painted the portrait of a young Missouri mother shortly after her death. Her descendants moved far away. Over the generations, the family forgot who painted the portrait, but had the foresight to write the name of the subject on a piece of paper and tape it to the back of the frame. 

Mrs. Henry Neill (Sarah Ann (Sallie) Elliott)

Name taped to the back of portrait

A woman who collects antiques saw the portrait in a second-hand store where it had recently been purchased at auction by an artist of the “American School.”  Though the painting was damaged, the face of the subject intrigued her. She bought the painting for less than a $1,000.  Because she had the name of the subject, and because she is an innately intelligent and curious woman, she traced the family history and contacted the art detectives.  Together we simultaneously discovered the portrait was painted by Bingham. Scientific examination by museum conservators confirmed the likelihood that the portrait is indeed by George Caleb Bingham. The painting is undergoing conservation to bring back its original beauty.  Need I write that the painting appraised for far more than the sale price?  

George Caleb Bingham, Mrs Henry A Neill (Sarah Ann (Sallie) Elliott), 1871 (Detail)

George Caleb Bingham, Mrs. Henry A Neill (Sarah Ann (Sallie) Elliott), 1871

To repeat what Watson wrote in a blog in May: “Search out and write that family history, those family stories!” And now we’ll add, “And write down the names of the subject and artist.”  The small task pays back with priceless information about your family’s past — sometimes it pays good money, too.

(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2012
All Rights Reserved

About Patricia Moss

Patricia Moss is an art historian, or art detective if you will, who solves mysteries of 19th century American portraits. She located nearly 70 of Bingham’s lost portraits, a feat acknowledged by the Smithsonian’s Research and Scholar’s Center. From expertise with portraits of George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), she developed skills that evolved into a comprehensive system based on the scientific method that conforms to the legal and ethical standards of art authentication. Moss served as a guest curator for the Bingham Bicentennial Exhibit, “Steamboats to Steam Engines: George Caleb Bingham’s Missouri: 1819-1879,” (March 10-September 8, 2011) at the Truman Presidential Museum and curated the opening exhibition, “George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History,” (September 2013 –), Jackson County Art Museum, Independence, Missouri. She is also the principal researcher for Fine Art Investigations.
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