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Urban Archeologist: Treasure Behind the Frame

Want a free education in Art History? Try Urban Archeology.

Last weekend, while on a dig in Ridgefield I noticed a picture frame holding four browned and faded ads (see image). I think most who frequent these sales have a similar feeling when they examine an old frame...  “Hmm, I wonder what's behind that picture?”  While others only have the “feeling,” I need to act upon it.

With permission, I placed the frame on a dining room table and began working on removing the hanging wire.  For some reason this frame seemed intent in holding on to its secrets. After 5 minutes I could only peel a part of the cardboard backing to see something colorful. This caused my anticipation to grow and I began to imagine myself on the stage of a great auction house as the bidding climbed into the millions...

It has happened before. In 2012 an unknown Van Gogh still life was confirmed when an x-ray revealed a known Van Gogh was discovered underneath. Not having a portable x-ray machine I had to keep carefully peeling to satisfy my curiosity.

As I peeled further, the back side of the faded ads revealed a magazine cover from a popular publication from 1902 (see image). But the layers of padding, placed to keep the frame tight, revealed another treasure! After a brief struggle I removed the back and found a completely different work of art tucked inside (see image). The painting was a print of Amodeo Modigliani's  “Gypsy woman and baby.” 

Amodeo Modigliani was born in Italy in 1864. Talented but troubled by tuberculosis most of his life, his style was unique and considered almost undefinable. He was known to live and work among the well know painters of his time. Sadly, he was eventually consumed by drugs and alcohol and his illness and died penniless at age 35. His pregnant girlfriend, so despondent over his death, threw herself out of a fifth story window killing herself and their unborn child. It was 10 years before her family, who disapproved of the relationship, moved her grave next to that of Modigliani.

Had the painting been an original, it would be worth millions. An interesting coincidence I discovered in my research: Modigliani was know to hang around with Utrillo, another piece of art history I discovered in Ridgefield two month's ago and wrote about here.

When digging, I try to take my time. I know there's a story in there somewhere and I need time to flesh it out. Patience pays off and I can usually emerge with a real find. I have to “shout out” to the team that runs Recycle Again Estate Services, their easygoing demeanor seems to equally benefit the client and the pickers like me. I can only hope that every estate sale service is as willing to let someone like me tear through a picture frame in search of a story. 

When is milk not milk?... When it's irradiated!  Find out more about the scariest innovation of the atomic age.

Greg Van Antwerp is a Brookfield resident and blogger, who can be found on the weekends in search of a good “dig” or a good story. You can read more about his adventures by visiting his blog.

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