When it comes to art, one man’s trash really is another man’s treasure. While some collectors have a penchant for the Italian Renaissance, other investors prefer Surrealism. Art is about more than aesthetic beauty, with no rules or boundaries to dictate what it should be.
The price of a piece of art is ultimately determined by the perceiver, with artists falling in and out of favor. Although there are technical aspects to consider, such as the piece’s age, creator, size, and provenance, a work of art that one person is prepared to part with millions for could be worth nothing to the next.
In this article, we look at seven masterpieces that lay hidden for decades before their amazing discoveries.
1. Sunset at Montmajour, Van Gough
Previously rejected as a fake because it had no signature, the landscape languished in a Dutch attic for more than a century before its rediscovery.
Researchers from the Dutch Van Gogh Museum connected the work to a hand-written note by Van Gogh about a painting he produced in the summer of 1888. Upon confirming the painting’s authenticity with 21st century technology, Axel Ruger, the museum’s director, branded the painting’s discovery a “once in a lifetime experience” at its unveiling.
The first full-size painting by Van Gogh to appear in 85 years, Sunset at Montmajour is predicted to fetch tens of millions if it is ever auctioned.
2. Portrait of a Lady as Flora, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Tucked away in the attic of a French château for more than two centuries, the work by 18th century painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo would have been considered somewhat risqué in its day, which is probably why it was hidden away. Believed to have been commissioned as part of a series by the Russian Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, the painting was most recently auctioned in 2017, selling for $3.1 million.
3. The Madonna, Raphael
Initially attributed to minor Renaissance artist, Innocenzo Francucci da Imola, and valued at just £20, the masterpiece was uncovered by a BBC TV crew at a majestic home managed by the Scottish National Trust. Art expert Dr Bendor Grosvenor recounts making the discovery while filming the TV series Britain’s Lost Masterpieces, thinking to himself “Crikey, that looks like a Raphael.”
Despite being in poor condition, caked in yellowing varnish and very dirty, the piece did not evade Grosvenor’s expert eye. Valuations of the piece have increased significantly, with the supposed £20 painting attracting a guide price of circa £20 million today.
4. The Battle of San Jacinto, Henry Arthur McArdle
A West Virginia attic may seem a somewhat improbable venue to recover a painting depicting the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto. Rendered in 1895, the mural-sized piece was hung in the Senate chamber at the Texas State Capitol. It remains there, forming part of a five-piece collection by the Irish-born artist, McArdle.
The smaller version of the painting was discovered by Jon Buell, a descendent of McArdle, in his grandmother’s attic. Hidden beneath the rafters under a tarp, the piece was very dirty at the time of its discovery. Despite Buell’s grandmother telling him that the painting was worthless, and just a working drawing, it subsequently sold at a Texas auction house for $334,000.
5. Judith Cutting Off the Head of Holofernes, Caravaggio
In 2014, a homeowner in Toulouse, France, opened up a previously sealed attic space to fix a leaking roof. Awaiting him was quite a shock: a masterpiece by the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio, worth around $136 million.
There remains some debate regarding the painting’s provenance. Some experts contend that this particular work may have been a copy made by his contemporary, Flemish artist Louis Finson. However, the French authority swiftly placed an export ban on the painting. Other experts believe that the piece is actually an accompaniment to an already authenticated work completed by the master in 1602.
6. Figure of a Cossack Bodyguard, Fabergé
Tucked away in an upstate New York attic for almost 80 years, this intricate figure depicts Empress Alexandra’s bodyguard and dates back to 1912. The piece is one of just 50 hardstone human figures made by Fabergé incorporating semi-precious and precious stones.
An expert from Per Stair Galleries described the seven-inch-tall figure as being on a level of rarity comparable with Fabergé Easter eggs. Featuring sapphire eyes, the figure was discovered in its original box, and it was thoroughly documented and easy to authenticate. The royal bodyguard sold for $5.2 million, far exceeding the $500,000 to $800,000 estimate.
7. Portrait of Saint Peter, El Greco
In his initial appraisal of the diminutive, 9 x 7" painting, auctioneer Richard Bromell assessed its value at £300, oblivious of the fact that the undated, untitled, unsigned portrait may have been painted by a Greek master.
Acquired in the 1970s by the owner’s late father, the piece was abandoned in a British loft for almost eight years before its rediscovery. The auctioneer was astounded when it fetched £98,000, as was the seller, who said he “needed to sit down” when Bromell broke the news on the phone.