Unsuspecting family learns that heirloom is by Martin Johnson Heade

Maddie Hanna reports in the Boston Globe that the owners of an unknown Martin Johnson Heade painting had no idea that the piece, which had been passed down in their family since the 1860s, was worth anything, let alone a million dollars. Hanna spoke with Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., curator of American art at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum and Heade scholar, about the painting.”Heades tend to turn up more than any other major American painter,” Stebbins told her. Heade’s work isn’t optimistic or realistic enough to neatly fit that categorization, Stebbins said. His paintings were “brooding,” so they weren’t popular in the 1800s. Middle-class people bought them and passed them down through families, Stebbins said, adding, “They just got scattered.” While the Heades were buried in basements, or hung in corners of homes, their value escalated. Now they often turn up at tag sales in places as far off as California. Original estimates by appraiser Bob Eldred put the value of the painting at about $500,000, but Lot #1120 sold for just over $1 million on Friday. It was the biggest sale Eldred Auctioneers has ever made. I wonder which of today’s b-list (and c-list and d-list) painters are painting tomorrow’s jackpot heirlooms.

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