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The Remarkable Case of the Purloined Painting

The Remarkable Case of the Purloined Painting

Proper inventory and storage of invaluable art works is a hot topic among gallery and museum curators. “I have walked through warehouses” looking for misplaced paintings on behalf of clients, says lawyer Susan Duke Biederman in an Observer.com interview. Given what lawyers charge, that’s an expensive way to track inventory.

Artists generate a lot of art. Andy Warhol created an estimated 10,000 art works; Picasso produced over 50,000. When an artist produces a number of works that look very much alike, or makes dozens of prints from the same original, gallery owners have difficulty keeping track of how many works artists have consigned to them. They compound the problem by stashing unsold works in multiple storage facilities. Insurance investigators recently found that one New York gallerist routinely stored paintings on the walls of relatives’ apartments in Manhattan – hardly a secure solution to the storage problem.

“Breaking Home Ties” Norman Rockwell, 1954

In terms of output, American painter Norman Rockwell was as prolific as his peers. He produced 4,000+ art works, and that’s where our mystery begins, as reported in The New York Times. “Breaking Home Ties” is a Saturday Evening Post cover Rockwell painted in 1954. The painting was exhibited around the world following its publication, then was purchased by a friend of Rockwell’s, Donald Trachte, Sr., the well-known cartoonist. It was Trachte’s prized possession, and was one of the paintings he successfully retained during a less-than-amicable divorce. After many years it was sent to an art conservator for cleaning, and when it came back, a strange discrepancy was noticed. The painting didn’t look like the original printed cover seen on The Saturday Evening Post.

Provenance is everything in the art world. Unimpeachable provenance is a key component of an art work’s value, and when the art work is by someone as famous as Norman Rockwell, the value can be multiple millions. The provenance of “Breaking Home Ties” was clear. It had passed directly from the artist’s gallery to Donald Trachte, and had remained in his home for 42 years before going to the conservator for cleaning. The painting sent to the art conservator couldn’t be anything but the original. Trachte’s children, who now owned their late father’s art collection, assumed the conservator had been a bit overzealous and caused the paint to fade.

Then Dave and Don Jr., Trachte’s sons, found family photos of the painting pre-dating their parents’ estrangement. They compared the old photos to their cleaned painting and became suspicious that the painting in their possession was not the original. Dave scoured the family home for any trace of the original Rockwell, and noticed an odd gap in the wall paneling where the Rockwell had once hung beside other valuable paintings. Enlarging the gap, Dave found hidden in the wall the original Rockwell, along with originals of several other paintings which had supposedly gone to their mother in the divorce. Expert artist that he was, Don Trachte Sr. had copied the paintings, including the Rockwell, in order to keep the originals from his ex-wife.

“Breaking Home Ties,” is judged the second most popular of all of Rockwell’s works. It is currently valued at $5 million, in part because its provenance, despite the copy, remains undisputed.

Of course conscientious gallerists and museum curators turn gray when they hear such tales. The storage and tracking of fine art is a very real problem, especially when space is an issue. Proper storage, such as this system installed by one space-challenged museum in Pasadena, California, can ensure provenance and protect the art work’s condition, thereby preserving the aesthetic and monetary value of a fine art collection.

Photo © zmijak/Fotolia.com

“Breaking Home Ties” © estate of Norman Rockwell 

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