Sunday, December 18, 2022

Accidental Art Discoveries

What a strange thought, to find a worthwhile work of art by accident. How does that happen? I have written about new technical advances that have allowed us to see the artist’s under drawing below the surface of a painting or see over-paint by another artist in order to cover the parts of a body thought to be unsuited for others to see. There is even a case of the discovery of a Goya that had underneath its surface, a whole other painting by the artist.

What seems to be not that unusual is finding coins on the beach. Not those that fell out of a sunbather’s pocket but ancient coins. There is a hobby of searching the sand with metal detectors for treasure that might have been swept ashore from shipwrecks. A 2011 article in the Maryland Dispatch reported a nine year old girl who was looking for sea glass for her collection came across what looked to be an old bracelet. Covered with grime it was hard to see exactly what it was, so the fourth grader and her mother took it to the nearby DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum on Fenwick Island, Delaware. The “Museum proprietor” Dale Clifton, is an expert in items from the many shipwrecks that are recorded off the Maryland and Delaware coast. Dipping the girl’s “bracelet” in a solution to remove the corrosion and grime, he revealed that it was a piece of wire that had become attached to a copper coin that was dated 1655. Although Mr. Clifton said the coin might be worth between $30 to $100, he thought the discoverer would not want to part with it, but rather keep it as a lifetime souvenir.


What about a discovery in your own kitchen? On the site of “Auction Central News” as well as other publications one can find a story about a British surgeon who bought a vase as a decoration for a nook in his kitchen. It cost him a few hundred pounds in the 1980’s. A visitor to his home, who happened to be an antiques specialist, spotted it in the kitchen and identified it as an 18th century ceramic made for the court of the Qianlong Emperor. It was inherited by the surgeon’s son who put it at action at Dreweatts in London. This exceptionally large 2 foot high vase was featured in their Chinese Ceramics sale with an estimate of £100,000-£150,000, it brought £1,449,000 ($1,700,000). Was this piece lost before it was “discovered”….you tell me.


Then there was a scrap metal dealer who paid the handsome price of $14,000 for a piece he found at a market thinking that he would melt it down and the object might be literally worth it’s weight in gold. To his good fortune and posterity’s, he did not melt it down before looking into what it might be. To his surprise he found out that it could be worth as much as thirty-three million dollars. Research had revealed that the piece was the third of fifty jeweled eggs made by Peter Carl FabergĂ© for the Russian Imperial family between 1885 and the end of its reign with the Russian revolution in 1917. This particular Imperial egg was presented by Czar Alexander III to Maria Feodorovna in 1887. It was displayed at Wartski’s in London in 2014 and is now in a private collection.


My favorite story of an art discovery was mentioned in a publication called Complex. In Montignac, France, in 1940 a group of teenagers were walking with their dog when it disappeared into a hole in the ground. (Judging from the handwritten signs posted all over Santa Fe, dogs are continuously getting lost particularly in our arroyos.) In this case, however, the kids were able to follow their pup into what turned out be a series of caves covered with paintings—hundreds of animal paintings. A publication called, of all things, “Dogster” elaborated on the story. The dog’s name was Robot, unusual at that time since the term was coined in a sci-fi movie just 20 years earlier. Robot had happened upon the famous Lascaux caves. Even at 15,000 - 17,000 years old, they weren't the most ancient cave art ever discovered in the region before World War II, but the significance of this find was the sophistication of the paintings. The horses and deer had been closely observed and rendered. The discovery showed an evolution that stretched over 20,000 years. What our mongrel-hero came upon that September day was nothing less than the evidence of our ancestors’ artistic evolution.


I believe serendipitous finds are more enjoyable and satisfying than stories of those seeking buried treasure.