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Lost & Found: Masterpieces of the Art World

"Sunset at Montmajour" by Vincent van Gogh was discovered in the attic of Norwegian industrialist Christian Nicolai Mustad after his death in 1970.
"Sunset at Montmajour" by Vincent van Gogh was discovered in the attic of Norwegian industrialist Christian Nicolai Mustad after his death in 1970. By Courtesy of Wikipedia
By Nicole L. Guo, Contributing Writer

Occasionally, a masterpiece will crop up in an attic, garage, or storeroom, warranting some fanfare and a headline of the unexpected discovery. Magritte, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh are only a few of the names attributed to these lost-and-found artworks. Everyone hopes to be the one to make such a once-in-a-lifetime discovery. But how do these masterpieces become mislocated in the first place, and what happens to them upon discovery? What does it mean for an item to sit unwanted for decades only to be sold for millions after resurfacing?

Given the rarity of stumbling upon a priceless artwork, it is unsurprising that each case is so unique in nature. There are artworks inherited by family members or close friends of giants of the art world — from Jackson Pollock to Italian Renaissance painter Filippino Lippi — whose monetary values are eventually forgotten as they pass through more and more hands, left to gather dust in an attic. Original artists may paint over an older painting to save the money of having to purchase a new canvas, only to be discovered centuries later by conservators who uncovered the base layer of paint and ran the canvas through an X-ray. Then there are those discovered purely by chance. In 2020, The New York Times reported on a couple who bought a painting for a reasonable price at a charity auction and hung it up in their living room, only to discover 60 years later that it was a Jacob Lawrence painting missing from one of the Met’s collections — a painting that could easily sell for six figures.

However, finding a masterpiece does not necessarily guarantee a one-way ticket to riches and fame nor a place in an art museum. In a market full of fakes, these artworks must go through a rigorous, money-draining authentication process. Even then, many are damaged due to improper storage or neglect and must also be restored. Exposed to smoke, humidity, and dirty environments, some artworks must be thoroughly cleaned before being sold or put on exhibition. Forensic science can be used to roughly date an unsigned and undated piece, but its origin remains uncertain, as many artists had apprentices who adopted their style and counterfeits made of both their own and their apprentices’ works.

A simple word of confirmation from an art authenticator can drastically drive up prices. Among the many counterfeits floating around the art scene, there are certainly a fair number that could fool even art museums and connoisseurs. As prices for valuable artworks soar, there are tentative reports that the amount of fakes have started to outweigh the number of originals in circulation. Thus, artworks without authentication often fail to garner as much money or attention in auctions, as most buyers want to confirm they are getting the real thing before investing millions of dollars.

For example, an unauthenticated painting allegedly painted by Jackson Pollock was put up for auction in June 2017, only for it to be pulled. The painting, estimated to sell for millions of dollars, received many offers — some of which were by individuals who lacked the funds to actually bid. Believing that bidders were not taking the authenticity of the Pollock piece seriously, the auctioneer decided to withdraw the painting from the auction.

This also begs the question of how the simple act of attaching a name to a piece of artwork can instantaneously increase its value. A Qing vase that sold for $19.1 million had been stored away inside a shoebox in an attic for decades. Owners of supposedly valuable artworks later exposed to be fakes are outraged even when they had been content possessing the object until that point in time.

The way an artwork’s worth can suddenly skyrocket overnight from discarded object to priceless masterpiece is a testament to the emphasis that society places on originality and name recognition. The price tag on a piece of art is not purely representative of the materials, time, effort, and skill poured into a piece by the artist but additionally covers the value that an artist’s background and fame may add.

Of course, this concept is far from new: From the countless paintings and sculptures in Versailles to the art prints on today’s hotel walls, art has always been associated in some way with wealth and as a way to elevate status.

Simultaneously, the trend of people obtaining art as another way to flaunt their wealth and cultural awareness is continuously driving the market prices upwards and attracting more and more swindlers. This phenomenon is cyclical in nature: Higher value equals higher prices equals an increase of counterfeits equals an increased value of the original. The increasing rarity of finding a genuine artwork tinges the discovery of a long-lost masterpiece with wariness and speculation before any amazement or wonder can settle in.

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