A Dutch Teenage Painter’s Multi-Million-Dollar Masterpiece Was Hidden in Plain Sight

The still life went unnoticed at an Australian school for 150 years

A still life painting made by Dutch artist Gerrit Willemsz. Heda.
The restored still life was painted by a 17-year-old artist known for his careful renderings of everyday objects. Courtesy of National Trust of Australia (NSW)

A painting depicting a half-eaten pie and nuts gathered dust in an Australian school for around 150 years. Today, researchers have discovered that it may be worth millions.

Painted on two oak panels, the work was unearthed among a collection of 60,000 pieces after the Woodford Academy, a 19th-century school, was gifted to the National Trust of Australia in New South Wales.

It was one of 36 works of art sent to conservators after the organization appealed to the public for art restoration funds. While removing varnish during the cleaning process, restorers discovered a small signature cut into the wood with a knife. The writing was later attributed to Dutch painter Gerrit Willemsz. Heda, who was active in Haarlem in the 17th century.

Titled Still Life, the work may have been painted in collaboration with Heda’s father, Willem Claesz. Heda, a prominent artist from the Dutch Golden Age. Both father and son were known for their still lifes; experts are still investigating the possibility that they produced the piece together. 

While removing the varnish during the cleaning process, restorers discovered a small signature cut into the wood with a knife.
While removing varnish during the cleaning process, restorers discovered a small signature cut into the wood with a knife. Courtesy of National Trust of Australia (NSW)

“To find an authentic 17th century painting in my storeroom at the National Trust was beyond exciting—it left me breathless,” said Rebecca Pinchin, the collections manager for the organization, in a press release Sunday. “This is a remarkable story of discovery which has taken us on a journey across a number of years, piecing together and validating the work through expert advice and technology.”

The Australian Associated Press (AP) estimates the painting’s new attribution could push its value to $5 million (about $3.6 million in U.S. dollars).

Experts suggest Heda was about 17 years old at the time of the work’s completion. “He was so young and so gifted,” Pinchin said. “Even if this artwork was painted as a father-son-collaboration, the level of Gerrit’s skill in this painting is incredible. The handling of all the different textures, from the fabric and glass carafe, to the pie and the metal plate is really quite miraculous.”

The teenage artist had talent, but his work was often mistaken for that of his father. Nonetheless, National Trust experts say, his still lifes breathe with symbolism.

“An interesting characteristic of Heda still lifes is that there is always a plate half off the table,” said Pinchin in the release. “It’s symbolic of the transient nature of life—one minute you have comfort and pleasure, the next you can fall into bad times.”

Painting made by Dutch artist Gerrit Willemsz. Heda before restoration.
The unrestored painting was hiding in plain sight at a historic Australian school. Courtesy of National Trust of Australia (NSW)

The painting has additional layers to uncover. One of the biggest mysteries it poses is how the 1640 work ended up in Australia to begin with. Researchers hypothesize that by the 1830s, Dutch pictures were fashionable there. One possibility is that Still Life was acquired by Alfred Fairfax, a member of a prominent Australian family who bought the Woodford House—an inn that later became a private school—in the 1870s.

After the death of the academy’s headmaster, John McManamey, a photo of his daughter, Gertrude, was found that shows her sitting beneath a painting with what appears to be Still Life’s wooden frame. Gertrude endowed Woodford Academy to the National Trust in 1979.

According to Pinchin, the collection was initially in a state of disarray. “Rooms were stacked with artworks, furniture and papers suffering from damp and insect infestation,” the curator said. “It took some time for the contents to be sorted and identified, and due to lack of resources the National Trust was unable to complete the research required for the full cataloging of the collection.”

Though conservators knew the painting was well-executed, the physical object was in bad shape. Only after cleaning the painting and searching with a microscope did they realize it had not one, but two signatures pointing to its provenance.

Conservators’ careful cleaning can bring out overlooked nuances in paintings—and sometimes reveal historic details lost to history, dirt or rogue artists. In 2019, for example, Meilan Solly reported for Smithsonian magazine’s Smart News section that a German museum discovered a hidden Cupid in a Johannes Vermeer painting during restoration that had apparently been painted over the original after the master’s death.