Children under a Palm Tree Painting - A mother fights for Justice
Fake or Real Masterpiece
The Art world is a mysterious journey that can take you back in time. Not only can it tell the story of the Artist, but if you look a bit closer, it can reveal a story of intrigue, greed or family feuds. When an Artist paints, he is thinking about the subject, but not of the aftermath. Little does he know that one day his picture will cause a battle that not only involves the Law Courts, but also will involve the greatest Auction House of Today. Sotheby's.
The story starts on a day way back in the 1980s. Tony Varney, a fisherman and his daughter Selina, had gone fishing at his local spot, in County Cork, Ireland. On the way back, they happened to walk past a Rubbish Dump. This is a place where everyone comes to throw away all their old garbage. TV's, sofa's, chairs and broken pieces of rubbish that they no longer want.
As they walked past, Tony spotted just outside the dump, a few old pictures thrown down on the ground. They didn't have any frames, and if he had left them there, they would have been ruined by the rain. Tony liked collecting things, in fact he has quite a collection of old pictures and other objects, that he likes to keep. Mainly bought at garage sales, charity shops and so on. So, leaning down, he brushed of the dirt, and decided to take them home to keep them safe from ruin.
Then for the next 20 years he forgot about them.
Then in May 2008, he decided to take them to the Antiques Roadshow in Althorp, Northampton England. This is a popular TV program made by the BBC.
When Tony Arrived, he was told that the other pictures were not valuable, but there was one that could well be worth in the excess of 30,000 pounds, approx 50,000 dollars. As you can imagine, he was stunned. He learned that the work, Children Under a Palm Tree, had most likely been painted by Winslow Homer. A very important water colourist in America in the 19th Century.
After the initial shock, Tony decided to let the Antiques Roadshow investigate how such a great Painting could end up on a rubbish dump in Ireland.
So they set out to try to track down it's History. And of course figure out if it was a fake or the real thing.
A Very Important Piece
After investigation, they found that the painting was indeed an authentic Winslow Homer. Taking the search further they realised that one of the other paintings found, had a connection to Homer, and the search was on to try and find out more about the story.
At the same time, they decided to put it up for sale at Sotheby's.
At this point, there wasn't any reason to think that there would be any problem with the sale of the Painting. Nobody had ever reported it missing, or stolen. As far as Tony was concerned it was just another pretty water colour that happened to have been thrown away. In fact Tony Varney and Selina, were more interested in the history of the piece. After twenty long years of collecting dust in a cupboard, they thought it was time that someone else had a chance to own this wonderful Painting.
Selina is a part time carer, and has four children. They are not a wealthy family, and Selina was really excited to think that she could use the money for the children to help them with their future. She was really looking forward to the sale, not just for the money, but because of the whole experience. Nothing like this had ever happened to her. So this was an exciting time.
Then it got even better. Selina and Tony were given the great news. The painting was in fact worth more.
A lot more.
It was well on the way to being sold for 150,000 pounds!
Who was Winslow Homer the Artist?
Winslow Homer was a landscape artist. Born on February 24 1836, he was well known for painting marine subjects. He also practised printmaking.
Being self taught, he practised with water colours and started his career as a commercial illustrator. He soon turned his talent to oil painting. Being most profficient in both water colours and oil, he soon became very well known.
In 1859 he opened a studio in New York City. For a few years he attended The National Academy of Design, and then went on to study with Frederic Rondel, who taught him the basics of Painting. He died on September 29 1910.
Work by Winslow Homer
In 2009, Selina and her father packed their case and headed off to New York. The Painting was going up for sale at Sotheby's. Everything was in place, the picture was ready, and all the catalogues had been sent out weeks before. There shouldn't have been a problem. But then out of the blue, Selina received a phone call.
Somehow, there had been a claim on the Painting!
The descendants of Sir Henry Arthur Blake, who was a British Colonial administrator, back in the 19th Century, stated that the painting was of Sir Henry's children, so therefore the painting still belonged to them!
Evidently they claim that it had been in their family for generations, and had been stolen years ago. Homer had Painted the picture when they had all met up abroad. Homer had then given their descendants the Painting as a gift. But the only trouble was that when the relatives were interviewed they kept coming up with a different story.
Lies and More Lies
On searching for the history of the painting, Sotheby's had managed to find the Blake family, and explained to them about the find. At this point, Sotheby's had been in contact with Mrs. Blake, and she was told about the Painting. She had also been given the Auction Catalogue which shows clearly the Painting and the sale price. She was very surprised to hear about it. And at the beginning, the family were not interested in the Painting. They explained that they had no record of a burglary, and no recollection of the actual work. Nobody had ever reported it missing, and in fact they hadn't even known of its existence.
While Sotheby's stated that they had let the Blakes know about the painting, and they had no objection to the sale, the Blakes had then decided weeks later that actually they did know it had been stolen and were interested in what was happening. Even worse, they claim that nobody had got in touch with them about it, and the first that they knew about the Painting was when Mrs. Blake had seen it in the newspaper in the States! She was on holiday, and just happened to find it when she was looking for something in the said paper! In other words, it was just a coincidence that she happened to be there at the same time as the sale. In other words she was calling Sotheby's a liar.
Then came the biggest bombshell. They wanted to sell the painting and give Selina just 25 percent of the proceeds.
Selina refused the offer. She was then told that she could sell it, and sort out the problem after the sale. 10 minutes before the painting was sold, she was called to the office and told that it had been withdrawn! Without an injuction, without any form off proof, the other party had stopped the sale!
Simon Murray, Sir Henry's great great grandson, gave an interview on camera stating that actually yes they did know of it, and refused to budge on the issue. When asked why he wanted to sell the painting, he stated that, 'Myrtle Grove, the family house needs a lot of renevating and we need the money for that'! He then went on to make an insulting remark about Selina and her family. He states, ' I feel sorry for her, I really do, I know she wanted the money for a swimming pool or loads of cars'!
This man, who comes from a family that is so wealthy they can jet of around the world just when they feel like it, belittles Selina, who is a kind and loving mother. But Selina held onto her dignity by not responding. Not only is Simon rich, he is also a lawyer. Therefore he knows exactly how to handle the case.
After the sale was stopped, Selina and her family spend the next year trying every way to get Justice. She has even been visited by the Police, who claim she may be prosecuted for theft!
Just over a year later, the Blake family allege that they have found documents, letters that mention the party that the children had gone too, and the description of the clothes they were wearing in the Painting. This, say the Blakes is irrefutable proof that the painting is theirs.
They stated that as it was a family piece then it should automatically come back to the family.
Sadly, there isn't any change on the horizon. Selina and her father, have been offered 25 per cent of the sale, and the rest of the money is to go to the Drakes. That of course is what would happen if Selina agreed.
But she didn't. As she states,' If we hadn't found the painting, it would have been ruined within a couple of days, or even a few hours. We saved it. They knew nothing about it.'
The case is still going on nearly three years after the first visit to the Antique Roadshow. .
I do understand both parties. On retrospect. The Blakes believe it is a family portrait and therefore it should go back to them. Selina believes that as her father found it, and kept it for 20 years, without anyone claiming it, then it belongs to her. The fact is that the Painting ended up in the Rubbish dump somehow. My personal belief is that either the Blakes who live there now, had the house cleared out, and all the rubbish was taken to to rubbish dump.
Or they moved in after their relative had died and they inherited the house. Either way the original owner, for whatever reason, decided at the time, that they didn't want the Painting, along with other goods, and threw them away. There was no burglary, as the Blakes stated in the first place. So surely the law just has to decide whether if you throw something away, have you a claim to it now? I don't know. all I know is that surely they can come to some agreement.
One other thing that I think should be mentioned. If there had been a burglary back in the 80s, and someone had deliberately targeted Paintings, believing they were valuable, then surely the thief would know how famous Homer was? You would not break into a house, steal an old picture without a frame, take it outside, look at it then throw it on the dump! Doesn't make sense, does it?!
Why not just split the money in half. Now there's a thought. The one advantage of all the publicity surrounding the story is that the Painting will increase in price. Maybe that is what the Blake family are hoping for.
Who owns the Painting. You Decide.
Latest Update from October 2013 and May 2015
According to Wikipedia, in October 2013 The London Evening Standard reported that Shirley Rountree (Simon's mother) was suing Sothebys for the return of the painting.
According to Sothebys, they have issued a statement that says:
'The ownership of the painting is still being disputed and should be settled in the Courts'.
The latest news on this amazing story is that Clifford Schorer a rich entrepreneur, says he loaned Selena Rendall an unspecified amount of money in 2012, and she backed the loan with the painting - which is estimated to be worth as much as $250,000.
Clifford has since tried to retrieve the Painting from Sotheby's but they still refuse to let him take it. Even though the Blake family have never pressed its ownership. It is still an ongoing case.
Only a change of ownership from Selena to Clifford has maybe helped to alter the dynamics of the argument. In other words Selena may not have much say or push in court, but a top business man will.
we will see!
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