Aficionados of Antiques Roadshow know that treasure sometimes hides in plain sight (if it isn’t a hoax or dud). And in operatic fashion, masterpieces often surface in prosaic domestic settings: attics, cellars, and garages.
It’s precisely the romantic, slovenly nature—ideally blocked by cobwebs—of these spaces that draws us to discoveries therein. There’s something about the rags-to-riches unlikeliness of it all, such as turning $721,765 in profit on a Chinese bowl purchased for $35 at a Connecticut yard sale.
But that’s not all.
In the past six months, two Jacob Lawrence canvases have been rediscovered, both within a mile radius of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The latter, in early March, represents “a tale stranger than fiction,” Brian Boucher wrote for Artnet News. A Ukrainian nurse, who told the New York Times she passed the painting a thousand times daily, contacted the Met. Having been ignored, she hauled it to the museum and finally got curatorial attention.
“Do you, dear reader, perhaps reading this while in lockdown on the Upper West Side, have a painting on your wall that you’re taking a second (or a third) look at?” Boucher concluded.
If that sounds like winning the lottery, don’t let that fool you. It is very much as unlikely as winning the lottery. But lottery winners exist, however few and far between, and so do finders of lost or forgotten artistic treasures… .
So without further ado, here are some past finds to inspire your search, ranked from most to least surprising.
Time lost: 1997–2019 (around 23 years)
Found: Hidden in a gallery wall
Why it’s a treasure: The canvas, which was stolen and missing for decades, is a kind of palimpsest, having been painted over a portrait of a different girl. “Klimt had painted over the portrait when the girl died suddenly, to forget the pain of her death,” the BBC reported. An Italian city council member—apparently unaware of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft, among other stolen works—called it “the most sought-after stolen painting in the world after Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence.”
Surprise score: Gardeners clearing ivy accidentally discovered the painting hidden in a wall of Ricci Oddi Modern Art—the very gallery from which it had been stolen. You cannot get more surprising than finding a masterpiece hidden at the crime scene.
Surprise score: 10/10.
Qing dynasty vase (1735–96)
Time lost: 1930s–2010 (around 75 years)
Found: In a “dusty” attic near London’s Heathrow Airport
Why it’s a treasure: Elegant fish and floral designs decorate this 16-inch-tall vase—likely made for an imperial palace—and the abstracted power of the waves surrounding the fish are worthy of Hokusai.
Surprise score: “As treasure-in-the-attic stories go,” reported John F. Burns in the New York Times, this one “will be hard to beat.” The Daily Mail called it the “ultimate Cash in the Attic story,” adding that the tenacious artifact may have survived “a wobbly bookcase” perch and transportation seatbelted in a car.
Finding its way safely to a “small and provincial” auction house that tends to sell much lower-priced objects is unlikely. (Bainbridge’s sold it for $69.5 million, though drama ensued.) The real surprise is the vase’s “lost” twin that surfaced in 2018, having been in a different family for some 90 years. What are the chances Qing lightning should strike twice in less than a decade?
Surprise score: 9/10
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Time lost: Around 1760–2008 (around 250 years)
Found: A French chateau attic
Why it’s a treasure: Empress Elizabeth of Russia is thought to have commissioned this work, although history doesn’t record whether she, who died in 1762, ever received it. It is among very few surviving Tiepolo paintings of “beautiful women in fancy dress,” works of “idealized feminine beauty [that] remain among the most famous and easily recognized of all Tiepolo’s works,” notes Sotheby’s, which sold the work for $3.1 million in 2017. (Christie’s sold it for £2.8 million less than a decade prior.)
Surprise score: The work was cast into an attic “because its semi-naked subject was considered too risque,” reports Reuters.
Per Christie’s: “Her long absence from public scrutiny has had its blessings, ensuring that the picture has been preserved—never lined and never cleaned.” It’s very fitting that this Tiepolo, which was veiled for being too visible, finally returned to the public some 200 years later.
Surprise score: 8.75/10
Rembrandt van Rijn
Time lost: Unclear. Found in July 2015
Found: In a New Jersey basement
Why it’s a treasure: The small, early Rembrandt, made when he was about the voting age in the state where the painting was found, “does not feature the strong chiaroscuro effects, subdued palette, and complex psychological tension normally associated with Rembrandt’s works,” note Alexandra Libby, Ilona van Tuinen, and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., in a text published by the Leiden Collection. It was also covered in dirt and yellow varnish and put within a larger panel, where someone else extended the work. When the varnish was removed, it was clear that it had suppressed Rembrandt’s brilliant palette. The subject of the work—smell—which is part of a larger series, also represents a Dutch penchant, as a Mauritshuis show demonstrates.
Surprise score: Nye and Company auctioneers identified it as an unsigned “triple portrait with lady fainting“ dated to the 19th century “Continental School.” Bidding started at $250. Then the work sold for $870,000. That was well above the estimate of $500 to $800. At the time, the auction house director told Artnet News that he had “no inclination that it was going to do anything like what it did.” He told Reuters the painting was “remarkably unremarkable” and “looked like a dark, discolored portrait of three people, one of whom is passed out.” The original owners may have passed out themselves when they learned it went for between $3 and $4 million thereafter.
Surprise score: 8.5/10
Vincent van Gogh
Time lost: 1901–70 (69 years), but later known to have been purchased in 1908. Authenticated in 2011
Found: In a Norwegian attic
Why it’s a treasure: When Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum unveiled the work in 2013, its director said: “This is a great painting from what many see as the high point of his artistic achievement, his period in Arles, in southern France,” the Associated Press reported. “In the same period, he painted works such as Sunflowers, The Yellow House, and The Bedroom.”
The artist, writing to brother Theo, called the sunset he depicted “romantic… The sun was pouring its very yellow rays over the bushes and the ground, absolutely a shower of gold,” though he expressed disappointment in the canvas. This picture has been through as tumultuous a life journey as its maker, but it stands out not only for the beauty of the sunset, but also for the dancing trees and flowers.
Surprise score: As the AP reports, one owner of this picture—having been informed by France’s ambassador to Sweden that it was a fake—banished it embarrassedly to an attic. By 1991, the Van Gogh Museum itself decided not to authenticate it. The son of a preacher, Van Gogh, who had several deeply religious spells during his life, would have appreciated this canvas’s impersonation of Isaiah 53:3, “[It] is despised and rejected … despised, and we esteemed [it] not.”
Surprise score: 8.25/10
Fabergé figure of a Cossack Bodyguard (1912)
Time lost: 1934–2013 (79 years)
Found: In an Upstate New York attic
Why it’s a treasure: The sapphire eyes alone are a marvelous feat, and a Fabergé specialist (under the seller’s employ) fawned to the Times: “The expression in the face—nobody can do that these days.” Per Stair Galleries, Fabergé figures are “on a level of rarity with the imperial Easter eggs.” Fabergé likely made just 50 “hardstone” (semi-precious or gemstone) human figures.
Surprise score: Stair set a record selling the seven-inch-tall figure for $5.2 million well above the $500,000 to $800,000 estimate. That a royal bodyguard was able to keep himself safe in a Rhinebeck, New York, attic for nearly 80 years isn’t entirely unexpected, but his discovery in his original box, so easily and extensively documented, is rare indeed. One point per decade lost.
Surprise score: 8/10
Time lost: 1689–2014 (325 years, at least 100 in an attic)
Found: By a Toulouse auctioneer, “leaning against a wall in a dark, cluttered, leaky attic”
Why it’s a treasure: If this work is really by Caravaggio’s hand, it is clearly a treasure. No one paints figures in dramatic light quite like he. The violent scene appears in some redactions of the Old Testament but not others. Form here follows content, as experts disagree on its authenticity.
Surprise score: “It’s incredible, but it’s true,” auctioneer Marc Labarbe told CNN. “There are only 65 of his paintings in the world, and I found the 66th painting in an attic.” The “dusty, water-stained” canvas was predicted to bring in some $171 million at auction, before selling pre-auction under mysterious circumstances. (The buyer was unmasked.) By another strange coincidence—its journey being “the stuff of a Dan Brown novel”—burglars passed on taking the canvas a few years before its rediscovery. History may yet exonerate their taste.
Surprise score: 4.5/10 (due to attribution asterisks)