Confessions Of The Small Town Art Restorers
The Provenance of a painting! Very important these days. Someone walks into the gallery. Sniffs around a bit. Asks a few questions, but obviously wants to be left alone. Stepping slowly from painting to painting, until he zeros in on what may be a keeper. He now makes eye contact and that means it is ok for me to approach him. Now the interrogation begins. What do I know about the painting? Where did it come from? How long have I had it? ( This question is very important to him as he will use it later to prove no-one else will ever buy the piece but him and this is my only chance to sell it.) What he does not realize is that I have been through this before. Paintings are not like tomatoes and they do not go bad in a few days!😆 Questions continue. He does not like the frame. Can he buy it without the frame?? He sees a little damage. Does that reduce the value? How much if I pay cash? This is always a good one since they whip out the plastic as soon as I agree. And finally, can you deliver?
This process brings to mind a painting in our own collection with a very special provenance. It came out of the bottom of a dumpster!
An old friend of ours was driving to work when she passed a house that had recently been sold. Out in front was one of those big green dumpsters. The new owners were cleaning out the house. Everything was going! The furniture was being tossed. The matresses, the refrigerator. The lawnmower, and the paintings! She could not believe it! Now this lady was no spring chicken, but she was a seasoned antique dealer and she could not let this opportunity go by. She stopped her van and climbed into the dumpster and started hauling out all sorts of good stuff. At the very bottom was this oil painting. Obviously the workers had cleared the walls before moving on to the heavy items.
The painting was a total mess. A chair leg had gone through the middle and a windowpane had been shattered on top. When the painting was flung into the dumpster, the frame hit the side of the box and was now a jigsaw puzzle of pieces. After that, the painting was buried under the kitchen linoleum. Our friend could deal with all the furniture and glassware, but she could not deal with the painting. She collected the pieces of the frame and put them in a sack. She pulled out the painting and took it home to dry. It had rained since the painting had been tossed out and was in a very sad wet state.
We soon got a phone call. Said she had a project for us. More than a project, a gift. She did not want it back. She just wanted it saved! How could we resist that? After hours and hours of work, the frame and painting have returned. Due to the severe damage, and the kindness of a gift, we could not part with it. Into our collection it went. A very nice early 19th century oil on canvas in original frame.
In years gone past, a very large bank made lots of money and with that money, they hired an interior designer to convert their bland sky scraper into a very welcoming environment full of beautiful 18th century furniture, crystal chandeliers, lush oriental carpets and walls of fine paintings. The bank officials were delighted and the customers were suitably impressed. Business was good and everyone was happy!
Everyone except the federal government, who came in and took over the lovely bank for reasons we will not go into here. After much fussing on both sides, all those beautiful accessories were auctioned off at a public sale.
Our client attended that sale and bought his favorite painting that he had always admired at the bank. It was the portrait of an early Italian woman in rich clothes and lots of jewelry. The portrait was very striking, but it had condition issues, so he brought it to us to have it cleaned and tidied up a bit.
I began to clean the painting and color started to come off, This is very unusual for a painting that age. I proceeded very carefully and soon an eye began to appear. We called our client and told him that his Renaissance portrait was painted on top of an earlier painting. He came to the studio to have a look and decided, since the background had been only one color, to have me clean off all the background leaving only the portrait with the earlier painting of the figures behind. He was delighted and took the finished work home.
In a few weeks he brought it back and asked for the background to be painted over! It seems that a guest of his thought it was the stupidest thing he had ever seen! He obviously had not seen the same things we had seen!
After the death of our friend, the painting was again put up for sale and we were able to buy it for not a great sum, because portraits are not too popular in this part of the world.
I again cleaned off the background as well as the portrait to reveal a wonderful early painting of Saint Anthony and the Angel along with his book. It was quite common then, to paint over pieces of a huge religious painting, so that many time the canvas itself would be much older than the painting on the front. The rare thing about our Saint Anthony was the fact that it was just a smaller complete painting and not a section of a much larger painting.
After much scrounging around in Portland, we laid our hands on a period Italian Renaissance frame that fit the canvas perfectly!
We called him “THE DOCTOR”, but he was not a doctor at all. He was the night custodian at the local bank! A very eccentric custodian. His appearance was that of Albert Einstein. He drove a 1958 turquoise Chevrolet truck that had seen better days.