Art conservator Lauren Lewis often scans Facebook groups of aficionados devoted to the Wyeth family of artists. She routinely finds posts with pictures of the Wyeths’ work accompanied by a version of the question “Is this real?” The answer is almost always no, a conclusion Lewis comes to quickly upon noticing the telltale signs of a reproduction.
But in mid-May, one of those posts caught her eye. One of the photos was of the back of a painting and showed the label of an art supply manufacturer that Newell Convers Wyeth was known to use.
“It kind of made me stop and read the rest of the post,” Lewis told The Washington Post.
The author of the post was a New Hampshire woman who, when looking for scrap frames at a Manchester, N.H., thrift store in 2017, bought for $4 what she thought was an unremarkable painting. Six years later, she suspected it might be something more and turned to the collective knowledge of Facebook. Lewis thought she might be right.
She was, and this month, Bonhams Skinner plans to auction off the oil painting, which is about 25 inches long and 17 inches wide. The auction house expects the piece to go for between $150,000 and $250,000.
“I was really excited to see where it went,” Lewis said, adding that the experience has been “a very big deal for me.”
In the late 1930s, after a commission from Little, Brown and Co., the celebrated American artist N.C. Wyeth produced a set of four paintings for the 1939 edition of Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Ramona,” a novel about a half-Native American and half-Scottish orphan living in Southern California after the Mexican-American War.
Wyeth painted the four illustrations at his studio in Chadds Ford, Pa., and then sent them to the publisher. Although experts at Bonhams believe the publishing company gifted the illustration to an editor or Jackson’s estate, they know little about what happened to the painting until 2017 — 78 years after Wyeth sent it off.
In August 2017, a woman was at a Savers thrift store in Manchester looking to buy old frames she could repurpose, Bonhams spokeswoman Sheri Middleton wrote in an email to The Post. While flipping through a stack of frames, most of which were holding old posters and prints, she happened across an old, dusty painting. She put it in her shopping cart, joking about it being a real painting. After doing a quick internet search and finding nothing, she hung it in her bedroom for a few years and then stashed it in a closet.
All the while, she didn’t know she was sitting on a long-lost painting by one of America’s most famous artists.
While cleaning in May, she came across the painting, prompting her to post some pictures of it on a Facebook page called “Things Found in Walls.” A user suggested she post the images to a Wyeth-specific group, which is where Lewis took notice.
“I’m often seeing works of art that come up on my thread and I just kind of gloss over them,” Lewis said, “but this one really caught my eye.”
Curious, Lewis replied to the woman’s Facebook post, identifying herself as a painting conservator in Maine and offering her expertise in assessing the illustration’s condition. She didn’t expect a response.
A few hours later, however, the owner contacted Lewis through the website for her private conservation business. That led to a long phone call and an agreement to meet about a month later near the home of the owner and her husband.
In the meantime, Lewis kept researching the “Ramona” illustrations, learning that all but one had been missing since Wyeth sent them to the publisher to be printed in the novel. Lewis contacted Wyeth expert Christine Podmaniczky, a curator emerita at the Brandywine Museum of Art.
Podmaniczky told Lewis that she had spent years researching and trying to track down Wyeth paintings that had been commissioned and then fell off the art world’s radar, Lewis said. At the time, it was common for an artist or a publisher to give away original paintings like the ones from the “Ramona” series as housewarming gifts to friends or VIP clients, she added. Podmaniczky ran down “tons of them” but most of those from Wyeth’s “Ramona” series “for one reason or another, was elusive,” Lewis said.
“All of these paintings were out in the ether and, I guess, presumed destroyed or just never turned up again,” she added.
In mid-June, Lewis drove three hours from her home in Thomaston, Maine, to a neutral site in the Manchester area. After meeting the owner and her husband, Lewis examined the illustration, which she said was “in amazing condition, especially considering it’s been missing for 80 years.” Everything about the painting jibed with what Lewis knew of Wyeth’s art — the signature, the brushstrokes and art supplier F. Weber and Co.’s “Renaissance” label that she had seen in photos. She was all but certain that it was authentic.
“It was so exciting, being able to tell the owners what they have … because they really did not have any idea,” she said.
The painting’s future is uncertain, but Lewis has hopes for it. She’s already disappointed that, despite resurfacing, little to nothing is known about what happened to the painting between 1939 and 2017. She would like for the future owner, instead of hoarding the artwork away, to lend it to a museum so the public can see and appreciate it.
“I just hope,” she said, “that it doesn’t disappear again.”