February 7, 2007
For months, the painting sat wrapped in a garage. Before that, it hung for decades in a home in Pisa, Italy.
The owner, a Southern California woman, never knew the value of the painting. For her, it represented fond memories of her grandmother, and it looked good on the wall over the piano, where she eventually hung it.
On Super Bowl Sunday, someone gambled more than half a million dollars at an Oakland auction that the painting is the lost work of a 17th-century Italian master.
All the seller had hoped for was a couple thousand dollars to help pay for her daughter’s tuition at UC Berkeley.
“This was a surprise to all of us,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous because she didn’t want people to know about her windfall. “It still hasn’t registered yet. We’re all in shock.”
The painting is untitled and unsigned. No one knows for a fact who painted it or when. But it appears to be the work of a 17th-century Italian artist named Pier Francesco Mola. It was sold to an unnamed art dealer in the New York area.
The painting originally belonged to the seller’s grandmother, who lived in Italy. It hung in the back room of her grandmother’s home and was known by the family simply as “The Quadro,” Italian for “The Painting.”
“All we know is that it was given as a gift to my grandmother,” the seller said in a telephone conversation from her Southern California home. “I don’t know if it was from a boyfriend or not, but I like to think it was. It makes the story a lot better. But I really don’t know.”
The seller said she used to see the painting during occasional family trips to Italy to see her grandmother. She loved the work but never really thought about its value.
About two years ago, her grandmother died, and the seller’s mother — who has since died — had her belongings shipped to the United States. The seller was the only surviving grandchild, so the belongings went to her.
She put the painting in the garage for several months and later hung it on a wall over the piano where her daughters learned to play music.
And there it stayed until the seller’s oldest daughter was accepted to UC Berkeley. The seller said she and her husband are not rich, just average, middle-class people living in a modest, middle-class home in a suburban city. Paying UC tuition was a real challenge.
The woman decided to part with the painting and some other furniture and items left by her grandmother. She had never done anything like that, so she did an Internet search for auction houses. She found a reference to Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland and liked the fact that another woman had used it to sell similar items. She called Clars and asked if the gallery could help her out.
Redge Martin, president of Clars, sent a truck to her home and brought some of the items to Oakland to put them up for auction. He and his staff could not determine the origin or value of the painting, but it looked like it might have been made by one of the Old Masters. He thought the painting might sell for a few thousand dollars.
The staff at Clars spread the word across the country and in Europe that the painting was for sale and generated some buzz in the art world.
Then came the auction. It was Super Bowl Sunday. Bidding opened at $5,000.
The seller was at home in Southern California. She was painting a closet prior to the football game when the auction began. Her husband checked the auction on eBay because it was being sold simultaneously live at Clars and on the Internet.
“I heard a shout and went to see what happened,” the seller said. “I went in the other room, and my husband had fallen out of his chair. We watched the price go higher and higher. We couldn’t even say anything because it didn’t seem real.”
And that was just when the price hit $30,000.
Ted Bielen, a patent attorney from Berkeley, was in the audience at Clars. As the price rose and rose, he said, jaws started dropping. Every time another bid came in, he said, there was a collective “whoa!”
“People were saying, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” he said.
Apparently, the bidding was hot and heavy between an American and some European bidders, who drove the price to $300,000, where it seemed to stall. Then a bidder from New York came in and drove the price even higher. The New York bidder fought with a French bidder until the price reached $560,000, and the French team dropped out.
The final sale price, with buyer’s premium, was $620,900.
Martin said the buyer wished to remain anonymous. He said he did not know whether the dealer was working on behalf of a specific buyer but that dealers don’t want people to know what they paid for a piece because it might affect what they can sell it for.
The seller said she and her husband hosted a small Super Bowl gathering at their home. They said nothing of the sale, she said, because they were in shock and still not 100 percent certain that the whole thing was for real.
So they sat there, stone-faced and bursting inside and unable to share the story with their friends.
Paintings by Pier Francesco Mola hang at San Francisco’s de Young and Legion of Honor museums as well as the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Louvre in France and the National Gallery in England.
The highest price paid for a Francesco Mola appears to be $2.8 million, though many of his works sell for $100,000 or less, Martin said.
Kathy Wong, fine arts appraiser for Clars, said to the best of her knowledge no one has authenticated the painting as a Francesco Mola. Determining the origin of a painting can be difficult, she said. Experts usually can tell by comparing certain artistic traits, such as the painting technique or particular details in the artwork. Others might have access to library materials, such as sketches or notes made by the artist, that are identical to the actual work.
But it’s an inexact science, she said. The painting might have been made by a student or admirer of Francesco Mola. Still, it’s unlikely that someone would pay more than half a million dollars on a hunch. Someone probably did a lot of research on the painting before he or she was willing to pay big bucks.
It’s the dream of anyone who’s ever watched “Antiques Roadshow,” to discover that some old painting or piece of furniture is worth a small fortune.
Martin said it’s not uncommon for an auction item to sell for several times the amount it is thought to be worth. Usually, he said, the scale is much smaller. Something estimated at a couple thousand dollars might go for tens of thousands of dollars, he said.
Levi Morgan, a spokesman for Bonhams & Butterfields in San Francisco, said estate sales are ripe for those kinds of situations because the valuable items can get lost among all the other items for sale. And you never know when Grandma or Grandpa came upon a collector’s item and didn’t know it.
Usually, he said, auction items are on display before they’re up for sale, so potential buyers have time to examine them and determine their worth.
“You can usually smell that in a preview,” he said. “People come in and look at something important, and the excitement is in the air.”
He, too, said items valued in the hundreds or low thousands will sometimes bring in 10 times that much.
“We can only hope to catch the painting that goes for a half million,” he said.
The seller said the money is an incredible gift from her grandmother and mother. She put a photo of her grandmother on the piano, near where the painting once hung. She kisses the photo and says, “Thanks, Grandma” several times a day.
“Really, though, this isn’t going to change us,” she said. “We’ll use the money for tuition and maybe pay off the mortgage, but it’s not like we’re going to go out and buy new cars or anything. I don’t think our friends will even know the difference.”