When an antiques enthusiast purchased a painting that appeared to bear the signature of N.C. Wyeth at a thrift store in 2017, she joked that the $4 painting might actually be a real work by the prolific American artist and patriarch of the Wyeth family of painters. Her joke was no laughing matter, and the painting is now estimated to fetch as much as $250,000 at a Bonhams Skinner auction in September.
According to Bonhams Skinner specialists, the consignor—who is staying anonymous—unknowingly purchased the work at Savers thrift store in Manchester, New Hampshire, while searching for frames to reuse. The Wyeth painting had been stashed against a wall along with mostly damaged posters and prints, according to the auction house.
The woman took the piece home but could not find any information about the work with a quick internet search. After hanging the painting in her bedroom for several years, she eventually stored it in a closet in her home. She rediscovered the painting this past May while cleaning, and this time posted images of the work on a Facebook page titled "Things Found in Walls", dedicated to “stories of things you have found in walls, dug up in your backyard, or in that abandoned house across the street from your grandma's”, according to the group’s description.
Comments on the post led her to contact Lauren Lewis, a former curator who worked with paintings by three generations of the Wyeths: Wyeth, his son Andrew Wyeth and his grandson Jamie Wyeth. After seeing the piece in person, Lewis was “99% certain it was authentic”, she told The Boston Globe.
“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,” Lewis told the Globe.
Lewis also consulted with Christine Podmaniczky, a curator at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, where much of the family’s work is kept. Podmaniczky agreed the work purchased at Savers was likely the original, Lewis told the Globe.
Wyeth often did cover art for publishers of periodicals and novels. The painting up for sale in September is one of four Wyeth completed for a 1939 edition of Helen Hunt Jackson's book Ramona, originally published in 1884. In it, Wyeth painted the young title character facing her elderly foster mother, Señora Moreno, while a statue of a religious figure looms between the women. Only one other has been recovered, according to Bonhams Skinner. Specialists believe publishers Little, Brown and Company may have passed the work along to an editor or to the author’s estate.
The auction record for any member of the Wyeth family was set last year during the sale of Microsoft co founder Paul Allen’s collection at Christie’s New York, where Andrew Wyeth’s Day Dream (1980) sold for $20m ($23.2m with fees), more than six times its $3m high estimate.