I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
It's not likely you will discover a Rembrandt or Picasso at a flea market or garage sale, but valuable paintings do sometimes appear in unlikely places. The lucky finders can reap massive financial rewards. But, caution may be needed.
Given the huge prices that authentic old artworks can command there's a big incentive for rascals to find “masterpieces” in unusual places.
Let's have a look at the mysteries surrounding two artists, one ancient, one modern.
Caravaggio in Ireland
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was an artist who worked in Rome. Many of his paintings featured violence and others followed religious themes.
Sergio Benedetti was a conservator working in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. In August 1990, he was asked by the people in a Jesuit community house to take a look at their collection of paintings. He expected to find the usual religious paintings of little value, but he was in for a surprise.
Astonishingly, in the dining room, there was a painting that took his breath away. A world-renowned expert on Caravaggio, Benedetti was quite sure he was looking at The Taking of Christ, a long-lost painting the artist had created in 1602. It was a depiction of the arrest of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane after his betrayal.
In three years of detective work, he established the painting had made its way to Ireland via Scotland and for most of its life it had been misidentified as the work of a Dutch painter. The Jesuits placed the painting on permanent loan to Ireland's National Gallery. It's not for sale so it's considered indiscreet to ask “How much is it worth?” But, read on for an idea of what Caravaggio paintings sell for.
Caravaggio in an Attic
In 2014, a family in Toulouse, France became aware their house had a leaky roof. In the process of making repairs, they cleaned out their attic and found a very large painting propped up against a wall behind some mattresses and box springs.
Acting on the principle that the artwork might be worth something, the family called in experts. After a lengthy examination, art dealer Eric Turquin declared the piece to be the missing second version of Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio.
The painting depicts the biblical scene in which a Jewish woman beheads an Assyrian general. It was known that Caravaggio painted the piece in about 1607 but it had disappeared only to reappear in a French attic. Or, did it?
While Turquin, an expert in old masters paintings, had authenticated Judith Beheading Holofernes others are not so sure. Art historian Mina Gregori has said it might be the work of another painter and Gianni Papi from the University of Florence thinks it's just a copy.
Undaunted by the naysayers, the painting was put up for auction in 2019 with an estimated value of between $113 million and $170 million. A couple of days before the auction, it was bought in a private deal; the purchaser and price are unknown.
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Caravaggio in an Art Gallery
Has another Caravaggio materialized?
In March 2021, an art dealer in Milan, Giancarlo Ciaroni, was browsing through the catalogue of an auction house in Madrid, Spain. One picture caught his attention; it was of a painting of Christ just prior to his crucifixion and was attributed to the 17th century Spanish artist José de Ribera. It had a guide price of €1,500 ($1,700).
Ciaroni had his doubts and e-mailed his friend Massimo Pulini, a professor at the Bologna Fine Arts Academy. Within minutes, Pulini responded: “Damn! This is a Caravaggio! Where the hell did you find it?”
Word of the potential discovery spread quickly and the Spanish government slapped an export ban on the painting as an item of national treasure. It was removed from auction.
Coronation with Thorns, as it is named, will now go through a lengthy restoration and authentication process. If it is indeed a Caravaggio it could be worth $150 million or more.
Jackson Pollock in a Garage
Four centuries after Caravaggio was turning out masterpieces, we find American abstract impressionist Jackson Pollock splashing dollops of paint onto his canvasses. His works are worth a small fortune (or, a large fortune from the perspective of an online writer).
In 2015, a Scottsdale, Arizona man was getting ready to tidy up his property and move into a retirement home. In his garage was a collection of odds and ends that had belonged to his half-sister, including a Los Angeles Lakers poster signed by Kobe Bryant. Thinking it might be worth a bit, the man called in an auctioneer for an appraisal. Disappointment followed when the poster was valued at $300, but the appraiser, Josh Levine, noticed something else in the garage; a painting that looked a lot like a Jackson Pollock.
When a valuable painting is discovered it's important to track down its provenance. Investigations revealed that the Scottsdale man's half-sister was Jenifer Gordon Cosgriff, a New York socialite who circulated in the east coast modern art scene of the 1950s.
Pollock was prominent in that group so it's plausible that's how Ms. Cosgriff came to own one of his paintings. Further forensic examination determined the artwork was very likely a Jackson Pollock.
But, there's a twist in the tale. The painting was scheduled to go on sale in June 2017, with bidding to start at $5 million. But then, the auction was postponed and no word has emerged of if it will ever be held.
If the Pollock auction is ever held it won't be under the auspices of Josh Levine; his company went bankrupt in 2019 with no mention of a Jackson Pollock being among the firm's assets. Curious.
Was the Jackson Pollock sold privately? Was it even a Jackson Pollock painting at all? Sorry to say, the world has gone silent on the fate of the painting.
Jackson Pollock in a Thrift Shop
Retired truck driver, Teri Horton bought a painting she didn't like from a thrift shop. In 1991, she paid $5 for what she intended to be a gag gift to a friend.
Ms. Horton's pal didn't like the piece either so she tried to sell it at a garage sale. That's when it was spotted by an art teacher who said it might be a Jackson Pollock. Ms. Horton's down-to-earth response was, “Who the #$%& is Jackson Pollock?” That became the title of a documentary about her story.
Some art experts said the 66-by-48 inch painting was the real deal, others said it was a knock-off, citing the lack of a history or signature.
By 2008, Teri Horton was tired of dealing with American galleries so she shipped the painting to Toronto where it was offered for sale at $50 million. She told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation “Do I personally think it's worth [$50 million]? Hell no. It's worth the $5 I gave for it. It's ugly.”
Apparently, Canadian art connoisseurs agreed with her and the painting went back, unsold, to Costa Mesa, California where she lived.
She turned down a couple of multi-million dollar offers and didn't sell the piece before she died in 2019. Her instructions to her son were “Sell that damn painting, but don’t you dare give it away.”
- Wily art forgers develop clever subterfuges to give their counterfeit works a false provenance. In order to pass off a fake Max Ernst he had made, Wolfgang Beltracchi found old frames and canvases and put false dealer labels stained with coffee on the back. Then, he used an old camera and film from the 1930s to photograph his girlfriend, Helene, dressed as Beltracchi's grandmother with the counterfeit Ernst painting in the background. But, he made one mistake and was caught out. You can read more about art forgers here.
- According to major crime-fighting organizations, including the FBI, about 20 percent of the collections in major museums around that world contain paintings that are not by the artist to which they are attributed. Some are just misidentified, but many are forgeries.
- “The Man who Found a Caravaggio in Dublin.” Irish Times, January 24, 2018.
- “Will a Long-Lost Caravaggio Sell for $170 Million?” Benjamin Sutton, artsy.net, June 14, 2019.
- “ ‘Damn, this Is a Caravaggio!’: The Inside Story of an Old Master Found in Spain.” Lorenzo Tondo and Sam Jones, The Guardian, April 23, 2021.
- “Lost Jackson Pollock Painting Found in a Garage Could Be Worth $15 Million.” Nancy Coleman, CNN, June 13, 2017.
- “Controversial Pollock for Sale in Toronto.” Vicky Tam, CBC News, October 29, 2008.
- “Costa Mesa Woman Known for Her Fight to Authenticate a Possible Jackson Pollock Painting Dies Without Selling it.” Susan Hoffman, Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2019.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor