The print sat on the floor of a thrift shop in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, hidden among a series of artworks waiting to be priced. Typically, the store sells its secondhand art for between $10 and $50—but this particular piece, depicting two pastel-colored figures, was valued at a considerably higher price after experts identified it as a woodcut print created and signed by Salvador Dalí.
A volunteer named Wendy Hawkins first spotted the print.
“Sometimes when the paintings or pictures are in frames that are broken, and it was kind of dirty, they get passed by,” she tells CNN affiliate WAVY. “One day I saw this, with a bunch of other paintings lined up on the floor, and I said ‘This is old, this is something special.’”
Hoping to get an expert opinion, Hawkins brought the artwork to the nearby Seaside Art Gallery, where the owner, Madeline Smith, took a closer look. Two signatures—one pressed onto the painting with a woodcut stamp, the other scrawled by hand with a purple pencil—suggested the print might be a Dalí original. But Smith spent a week researching the piece before she was convinced that it was indeed the work of the famed Spanish Surrealist.
“I researched and researched and researched and just when I would ask myself, ‘Do I think I have this right?’ I would go out and research some more,” she tells NPR’s Vanessa Romo. “Dalí is very difficult to authenticate because there’s so many nuances with his work.”
According to NPR, the print, titled Purgatory Canto 32, depicts a blue-clad woman standing beside a man dressed in red. The work is part of a series of watercolor illustrations inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, a famed 14th-century epic that imagines the author’s journey through hell, purgatory and heaven.
In 1957, the National Library of Italy commissioned Dalí to create the series in honor of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s 1265 birth. But news that the project had been assigned to a Spanish artist, and not to someone from Dante’s native Italy, sparked an outcry. Facing public pressure, the government revoked Dalí’s commission.
By this point, however, the artist was fully immersed in the series. Over the course of the next nine years, he produced 100 watercolors—one for each of the Divine Comedy’s cantos—that brought a uniquely Dalí sensibility to the centuries-old poem. The strange, dream-like symbolism that permeates his best-known paintings is evident among the watercolors: One, for instance, shows a fallen angel peering down at his body, from which five open drawers protrude.
Dalí offered the paintings to the French publishing company Les Heures Claires, which, in 1965, released the artworks as a limited edition set of prints that accompanied a six-volume set of the Divine Comedy. The prints are woodcuts, meticulously rendered to replicate Dalí’s original illustrations. It took an artistic team five years to carve all of the necessary wooden blocks used in the printing process; each watercolor required between 20 and 37 blocks.
How did one installment of the Divine Comedy series end up in a thrift shop in North Carolina?
That, for now, is a mystery.
“We get things donated in the middle of the night and sometimes people just drop off things and leave, so we have no idea who donated it,” Michael Lewis, executive director of the Outer Banks Hotline, which runs the thrift shop, tells David Williams of CNN.
The newly identified print has already been sold for $1,200; proceeds from the sale will be donated to a nonprofit that supports a shelter for runaway teenagers, victims of domestic violence and victims of human trafficking.
“It’s rare to find anything like this,” says Smith to WAVY. “It’s like a treasure hunt, and thanks to Wendy, it’s been rescued, and brought to light so people in the art world can really enjoy it.”