Two for the Price of One

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

Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924)
Private Collection

This pastel presented a unique and not entirely pleasant experience back in 1988. I distinctly remember the boys showing me this in the lower level hall as I arrived at 7:30 for one of my Thursdays at the gallery. My impression was that it certainly didn’t amount to much even if it were genuine. On the back was a very old label which immediately stirred interest. The gallery’s serious research both with our Museum of Fine Arts and the Prendergast headquarters at Williamstown proved beyond a doubt it was a very early and rare Prendergast. A member of our gallery staff sold it sight-unseen on the recommendation of someone at the MFA to an important Swiss collector in October, 1988 for a reasonable sum, with the understanding that the piece would be removed from the frame only by the museum staff. Vose staff members were at the museum when it was removed and were startled to find a beautiful Prendergast watercolor used as backing for it!

This posed a legal problem on which consulted attorneys differed. Did the watercolor belong to the previous owner who had now been paid his portion for the pastel which had never been considered of much importance, or did it belong to the new owner? The Voses believed that the watercolor could possibly be worth a couple of hundred thousand dollars. To our dismay, a settlement was made directly between the buyer and the consignor without telling the gallery what it was.

What a windfall for both men! Too bad we couldn’t have been included in the happy find.
The only similar case I know involved the Canajoharie (New York) Art Gallery but it wasn’t so complicated. They sent a Homer watercolor to be reframed and another Homer watercolor was found as backing. No legal problem, just a very nice addition to their collection.

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