In 2017, a woman was thumbing through old picture frames at a New Hampshire thrift store when one caught her eye. She bought the frame, and the painting inside it, for $4. Perhaps she had stumbled across something valuable, she joked at the time, per CBS New Boston. A quick internet search revealed nothing, so she hung the painting up in her home and didn’t give it a second thought—until this spring.
That’s when the woman, who has requested to remain anonymous, posted photos of the painting to several Facebook groups, including one called “Things Found in Walls.” Through the groups, she connected with Lauren Lewis, a former curator, who drove three hours to see the illustration in person.
Lewis thought the $4 painting could be an original by N.C. Wyeth, a renowned American illustrator whose fame began with a Saturday Evening Post cover in 1903; he was also the father of artist Andrew Wyeth and grandfather of artist Jamie Wyeth. Throughout Lewis’ career, she had worked with art by all three generations at the Farnsworth Art Museum’s Wyeth Study Center in Rockland, Maine.
“I am used to seeing copies of Wyeth paintings or paintings by other artists who might have been influenced by him being attributed to the artist falsely, but there were things about these photos that caught my eye,” Lewis tells Eric Grossman of Barron’s.
After examining the painting, Lewis says she was “99 percent certain” it was authentic. Lewis also spoke with Christine Podmaniczky, a prominent Wyeth scholar, who agreed with her assessment.
“While it certainly had some small scratches and it could use a surface clean, it was in remarkable condition considering none of us had any idea of its journey over the last 80 years,” she tells the Boston Globe’s Emma Glassman-Hughes.
On September 19, Bonhams Skinner will sell the painting at auction, where it is expected to fetch as much as $250,000.
Kathleen Leland, a specialist in American and European art at the auction house, tells Hyperallergic’s Elaine Velie that the back of the frame provided additional hints about the work’s authenticity.
“Beginning in the mid-1930s, Wyeth used a particular type of artist board—Weber ‘Renaissance’ panels, distinctive for their red backs and elaborate labels—and this was the case for this painting,” she says.
Born in Massachusetts in 1882, N.C. Wyeth began studying under Howard Pyle, one of the country’s most famous illustrators at the time, in 1902. Within five months, Wyeth successfully submitted a cover to the Saturday Evening Post. Over the years, he famously illustrated the covers of classic novels such as Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe.
The newly identified painting was meant to accompany a 1939 edition of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona, originally published in 1884. Wyeth created four illustrations for the book, though two of the others remain lost.