Expert’s Pick: Treasures Revealed After Many Years In Hiding

Juliusz Windorbski, the CEO of the DESA Unicum auction house, provides his perspective on the art world and auctions sales. This time he writes about treasures revealed after many years in hiding. 

Works of art by eminent artists that are often worth a fortune can, from time to time, be found in attics, waste heaps, closed in divans or offered for sale at antique fairs. Sometimes they simply hang on the walls in the apartments of random people, unnoticed or completely forgotten. Nobody realizes that a particular painting above a kitchen table is worth a huge amount of money. These are the stories that make art lovers dumbfounded. The astonishment is so much more extreme in the cases when art historians believed a given work to be irretrievably lost. As mind-blowing as it may sound, valuable works can be found in places we would have never expected them to be. 

I will start the story with the most expensive painting ever sold at a public auction. “Salvator Mundi” by Leonardo da Vinci was bought by the Saudi Arabian crown prince whose winning bid was USD 450 million. The fact that this very painting was found, served as one of the most unbelievable discoveries in the world of art in the 21st century. Could you imagine yourself as an owner of a painting by a world-famous artist for, let’s say, 50 years, and not having a clue what you have at hand all this time? The former owner of “Salvator Mundi” purchased the painting for merely USD 750. He was evidently oblivious to just what kind of work he kept in his apartment. Many years passed until he finally sold the painting to two collectors for less than USD 10.000. The new owners presumably suspected at the time of the transaction that the painting which depicted Jesus Christ could have been created by the Renaissance artist. When the author was confirmed, the painting was sold for about USD 80 million to a Swiss art dealer. Afterwards, a Russian millionaire bought it for 127 million. Finally, it was offered at an auction at Christie’s. This is by all means the most spectacular story involving a work of art in the last hundred years.

Leonardo da Vinci „Salvator Mundi”, Oil on walnut, c. 1500

Leonardo da Vinci „Salvator Mundi”, Oil on walnut, c. 1500

The recent sensational discovery only confirms the assumption that there are much more valuable works of art out there waiting for someone to unearth them. Recently a lot was being told about the work by an Italian painter, Cimabue, which dates back as far as the year 1280. For many years this exceptional work took up the space above an electric stove in the kitchen of a French lady. The value of this painting is estimated as EUR 6 million. In fact, this painting was one of the two Cimabue’s works that have been searched  for a long time. The first one was luckily found in 2000 in a private noble estate. Another unique discovery was made a few years before in similar circumstances. “Fruits on a Table” by Paul Gauguin was hanging on the wall of a Fiat factory worker’s kitchen, afterwards being purchased for a sum equivalent to EUR 23. The owner acquired the painting in 1975 at an auction in Turin where things left behind in Italian trains were sold. When he retired and relocated to Sicily, where his close family lived, he took the painting with him and placed it in the kitchen. After all, still life was an ideal kind of picture for a kitchen wall. Little did he know that the painting was stolen a few years before from the residence of Mathilda Marks, a daughter of Michael Marks, co-founder of the Marks & Spencer store chain. In 2014 the son of the factory worker in question found a photograph of a similar painting in a catalogue presenting works of art. Startled by this discovery, he commissioned experts to make a valuation of his father’s collection. When the mystery of the painting was revealed, the new owner notified the police. Despite that, the painting could, unfortunately, be returned to neither of its previous owners, who died, nor to their heirs, as there actually weren’t any. This is why the piece found itself in a museum, rather than become an exhibit at an auction.

Equally spectacular discoveries happen in the Polish art market as well. Such was the case with “Architectural Capriccio” by Jan Baptist Weenix, painted in 1647. An inhabitant of Warsaw found this work locked… in a divan. It was safely stored there along with various other trinkets. The painting was sold at an auction for nearly PLN 56.000. This discovery is considered a truly sensational one, because there aren’t a lot of works by old art masters in Poland in general. Works by Weenix are displayed e.g. in The Louvre, National Gallery in London and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which definitely adds to the value of the painting found in Warsaw.

 Jan Baptist Weenix, Architectural Capriccio”, photo: Studio DESA Unicum

A private storage building with a modest-looking sculpture inside, which, as it later turned out, was worth an unbelievable amount of money. I discovered “Bird” by Alina Szapocznikow, one of the most renowned Polish artists, accidentally while valuing the collection of an American collector. The owner of the storage building inherited the sculpture and stored it for a long time together with common household junk. During this time, it gathered a thick layer of dust. The owner was obviously unaware who the author of this sculpture was and did not realize how much it may have been worth. The discovery stirred up enormous excitement, partly due to the fact that nobody saw this sculpture during the previous 50 years. Alina Szapocznikow presented “Bird” at the Polish Painting and Sculpture exhibition at the Gres Gallery in Washington in 1961. Many people were convinced that the sculpture vanished into thin air and would never be seen again. Fifty years passed and the price of the sculpture went up to the level of PLN 2 million, which was a record price for this kind of artwork in Poland.

Experts employed by auction houses are very proficient and effective in finding such valuable rarities. Some of them helped a senior French lady who bought a small picture presenting a biblical scene in a flea market for less than 20 euro. The picture was framed and hidden behind dirty glass, so at the beginning it did not seem worth much more than the price paid. After some time however, the lady decided to send the picture to experts for valuation. When one of the auction house experts learned the name of the artist who painted the picture, he was speechless with wonder. What he was holding in his hands was an original painting by Rembrandt with a watermark in the middle. “The Archangel Raphael Leaving Tobias’ Family”, painted somewhere around 1641-47, was eventually sold for over PLN 50.000, which is a much higher price than its estimated value. This was one of the most recent lost and forgotten works of art unexpectedly unearthed and put on sale at an auction.

Written by Juliusz Windorbski, the president of DESA UNICUM 

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