Cranberry Harvest, Nantucket Island: An American Masterpiece

As told by Robert C. Vose, Jr. (1911-1998)

Eastman Johnson’s The Cranberry Harvest, Nantucket Island was probably the most important American landscape we ever sold.

It was found in Scotland by an agent of a Litchfield, Connecticut, art dealer in 1970. He had sent it over and met the plane at the Kennedy Airport. It didn’t appear. He immediately called the airport detective and with him found it in a shed behind some machinery. A value of $250,000 had been written on the box (a red-flag to robbers). After recovering the piece, the dealer drove it to Boston and we opened the box in the back yard at 238 Newbury. What a moment! We set a higher price than had ever been had for an American painting, and it was the laughing stock of disbelieving New York dealers for months.

Eastman Johnson (1870-1966), The Cranberry Harvest, Nantucket Island
Collection of the Timken Museum of Art

A prominent New York museum wanted the painting and had it sent down. I went there and opened the box myself. They offered to trade another Eastman Johnson, a group of Sargent water colors and some cash. We decided against it.

A museum in Washington, D.C. also wanted it and had it sent down. The committee turned it down and bought a $600,000 Cezanne instead. The director was disappointed.

The director of the Timken Gallery in San Diego was his own boss and didn’t have to bother with committees. He very smartly bought it on March 18, 1972, and set a record. My wife, Ann, and I were at a delightful luncheon at a Fort Worth Country Club at the opening of a Bierstadt show when we got the happy news by phone from the gallery. Ann and I took seats with the painting in a 747 to L.A. (I think seven seats in all), lugged it into a motel, rented a station wagon and delivered it to the museum. I remember as we carried the box onto the plane a stewardess said “You have to be kidding!!”

The piece is now the star of the Timken Museum of Art’s American collection, and in 1989 it was recognized as one of the 19th century American masterpieces."

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