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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

From Sydney to Genoa - Flea market finds, advanced technology and new research unearth sensations

As noted Sydney art conservator David Stein began carefully taking from its frame Lloyd Rees 1957 painting of harbourside Woolwich bought by dealer Denis Saville for $94,500 at auction in August 2002, he turned to Savill saying, “What do you think? Is this going to be a boring old canvas underneath or has the good Lord smiled on you?”

It was then that Savill’s suspicions were confirmed. With the Woolwich picture removed, a second painting of the harbour was revealed, signed and dated by Rees in 1948. At private sale some time later the previously hidden painting Rees thought no-one wanted sold for in excess of $130,000; providing Savill with quite the windfall.

Lloyd Rees in 2014 Photo: The Sydney Morning Herald

This story stayed with me, as in the years that followed I rummaged through rustic antique stores, charity shops and car boot sales looking to create a story of my own lucky find. Over time I came to accept that I was perhaps wasting my time as there were probably fewer such finds in the offering as society became more savvy and artworks by renowned artists for the most part well accounted for.

Perhaps I should have been looking further afield?

In 2013, Australian artist Stefanie Bassett, while flicking through old prints and sketches at a Lismore (NSW) market came across a striking little painting. In the far right corner read a small signature, “Olley, 1947”

Artist Stephanie Bassett Photo: The Sydney Morning Herald

As she handed over $20 for the painting Bassett recalled the stall owner quipped, “You know someone said that reminded them of a Margaret Olley painting ... if it turns out to be an Olley, you owe me a beer”.

The painting depicting a bouquet of calendulas in vibrant hues of orange, yellow and brown across a blue patched tablecloth, rendered in luscious heavy brush strokes was identified by Stein subsequently as an early work from one of Australia’s most significant still-life and interior painters, Margaret Olley, and likely to fetch up to $10,000 at auction. (Mario Christodoulou, Margaret Olley painting bought at car boot sale for $20, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 November 2017)

Conservator David Stein with Margaret Olley's freshly discovered painting

Margaret Olley at her Paddington home in November, 2005 Photo: The Australian

Whether its new attributions, lucky market finds, or a long-lost painting discovered behind a double-stretched canvas, advances in science and technological combined with new insights and academic research are contributing to a surge in unexpected discoveries.

Since 2016, the pace at which new discoveries are being found has dramatically picked up. Here are a few recent sensational finds.

Lost da Vinci painting that cost £45 in 1958 sells for a record-breaking $450 million

When the newly attributed Leonardo da Vinci portrait of Christ “Salvator Mundi” (c1500), bought at a clearance sale for £45 in 1958 sold at a record-breaking price (including fees) of US$450,312,500 (AUD$588,941,203) at Christie’s in New York last month, I considered it was perhaps not the time to give up hope of ever finding a lost masterpiece.

The painting stands as the first discovery of a da Vinci painting since 1909.

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvadore Mundi

Hieronymus Bosch

With only two dozen completed paintings in existence, works by the 15th and 16th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch are among the rarest in the world. In 2016, an oil painting by Bosch was found in storage at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, where it was forgotten for over 80 years.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Temptation of St. Anthony


In the same year, a second version of Caravaggio’s long-lost painting Judith Beheading Holofernes was discovered in an attic in France. The first version was painted in Rome and hangs in the city’s National Gallery of Ancient Art at Pallazo Barberini, but the second which was painted in Naples had been missing since the early 17th century.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes

Paul Gauguin

In 2016, a long-lost painting by Paul Gauguin was discovered by a Connecticut auction house in the home of a retired New York antiques dealer, who did not know that the work was by the Impressionist master. The work was authenticated by the Paris-based Wildenstein Institute and was identified as Summer Flowers in a Goblet, which is listed in the artist’s catalogue raisonné.

Paul Gauguin, Fleurs D’Ete Dans Une Goblet (1885)

Albrecht Dürer

In July 2016, a sharp-eyed collector spotted a 16th century engraving by Albrecht Dürer at a flea market in the town of Sarrebourg in the Alsace region of France. Noticing the stamp of Germany’s Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart on the back, the buyer notified the museum and returned the work. It was believed to have been lost for over 70 years, disappearing in 1945 in the aftermath of World War II.

Albrecht Dürer etching

Jacob Jordaens

Dismissed as a copy of the 17th century masterpiece Meleager and Atalanta by Flemish painter Jacob Jordaens, it languished in storage at Wales’ Swansea Museum until Bendor Grosvenor, a British art historian and presenter of the BBC program Fake or Fortune, identified the work in September, 2016. Experts at London’s Courtauld Institute performed an analysis of the painting’s frame and confirmed Grosvenor’s theory by dating the creation of the work to between 1619 and 1622 and valued it at US$3.8 million.

Jacob Jordaens, A version of Mileager and Atalanta

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Conservators at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt discovered a previously unknown painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner underneath the canvas of Schlittenfahrt im Schnee (1927-29). The newly found work, Szene im Café, which was painted around 1926, was found stretched on the same frame, but hidden from view.

It seems whether by using highly scientific means, a good eye or luck the work of rummagers like me may still have some way to go.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Szene im Café (c1926)

Art dealer, Denis Savill Photo: Daily Telegraph, Sydney

Main Photo: Art conservator David Stein (left) and dealer Denis Savill (right) with Lloyd Rees' Sydney Harbour paintings in 2003 (The Sydney Morning Herald)

Source: Art World, New research has resulted in sensational finds by Henri Neuendorf, 19 December 2016

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist, living and working in Melbourne, Australia

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