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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Paintings By The Masters

( Orginally published 1962 )



The room is hushed and quiet. There is only the heavy breathing of the men who are bending over an object which takes all their attention. The smell of chemicals fills the air-turpentine and alcohol; sulphuric acid; cedar oil and oil of spice. Small instruments lie ready to puncture tiny spots on the object, which is still untouched by the silent, eager men.

Suddenly the door opens and attendants wheel in an X-ray machine. The men are ready to begin. Their work is quiet; yet there is an urgency in the air, an urgency caused by the knowledge that the slightest miscalculation on their part may do irreparable damage. Their movements are calculatingly slow-because any spilling of their chemicals or slip of their instruments may cause untold damage.

The X-ray apparatus is brought forward and focused on the object they have been studying so carefully. Finally, then, they know what they have before them-and what they must do. They know that for months they will be in this room working with chemicals and instruments, and, using all their talents, they will scrape and clean and bring to life the object which they have so anxiously studied.

For what they have before them is a painting, but not just any painting. It is a very bad, poorly painted portrait. Yet by the use of chemicals and X rays they know that underneath this badly done work is another painting, a fantastic find in the world of art. A painting by one of the old masters, its marvellous colors and fabulous brush work hidden by the workings of an inferior artist who had placed his own splotchy work on top of one of the world's masterpieces because he had been too poor to buy canvas.

This is what has probably happened to many of the masterpieces of yesteryear. Where are they now? Perhaps in your attic is an old painting worthless in itself, yet beneath the top layer of paint is another painting, a painting so valuable that it could pay for your next yacht or two-if you only knew it.

So take a good, a really good, look at that old painting of yours. Perhaps you really have something.

Sometimes you can tell at a glance that one painting is underneath another one, because the top layer of paint has been damaged in some way and the older painting shows through. Most of the time, however, it takes an expert to tell, and it takes an expert to clean away the top layer of paint. Never, never try to remove it yourself. This could cause irreparable damage to the bottom painting, and irreparable damage to the value of the finer of the two paintings, a point of great importance to the treasure hunter.

There are some people who will insist upon trying a do-it-yourself method, by applying the more common paint removers such as alcohol, soap with potash, alkali or acetic acid, but remember that all of these regular paint removers remove paint at such a speed that the painting itself can become damaged. Only the experts can use the proper chemicals at the proper speed.

Only the experts can really do anything with these double paintings. They know when and how to use the proper instruments, chemicals and X-ray machine. They know all the modern ways of determining the authenticity as well as the number of layers of paint on a canvas.

X rays pass through the atom structure of the painting, and the less atoms present the easier it is for X rays to pass directly through. If there is one painting directly over another, it is harder for the X rays to penetrate both than if there were only one painting present. Thus the X ray finds the existence of the second, underneath painting.

Also, by seeing which parts of the painting the rays can penetrate most easily, the experts are able to tell quite easily whether a whole painting has been painted over or only a part of the original painting has been retouched. The latter is frequently found to be the case, since it was often simpler merely to change an older painting and bring it up to date than to paint an entirely new one.

The more prevalent custom, however, was for the artist to paint over the entire painting, leaving his own, usually hopeless, endeavor on top of what would be an enduring work of art to be hung proudly in museum halls-if it could be found.

How many paintings were lost in this way no one really knows. But there is at least one painting which may fall into this category. This is the portrait of Cesare Borgia by Pier di Lorenzo.

This painting has completely disappeared; yet, if it could be found, it would be a museum piece. Over four hundred and fifty years old, the painting may very well have been painted over. It certainly disappeared during a period when artists were notoriously poor and hungry, and any canvas within reach became the background for their art.

The portrait of the Borgia had already disappeared in the sixteenth century, in the days when canvas was still rare and expensive, so the probability is that somewhere the painting is well hidden beneath a layer of more modern art.

The portrait, of course, might not have been painted over at all but might still be in its original state. It could be that the eyes of a Borgia still stare out at a make-believe Renaissance world from the dark corner of someone's attic.

If your attic does contain this painting, it contains not just a painting by a master but the portrait of a man who made history; a man of the Renaissance who, among other things, has been accused of killing his own brother, although historians disagree on this point.

Soldier and Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, this then is the man that Pier di Lorenzo painted. Perhaps, if you are lucky enough, this painting is in your attic, in your basement, or in the neighborhood second-hand store, either unrecognized in its original state or painted over by a mediocre artist too poor to buy a new canvas. If so, it is just waiting for you to take it to the experts, who, with their chemicals, their instruments, and their X-ray machines, can clean and repair it.

Such was the case in the little church of Lucignano d'Arbia near Siena when the priest decided that the rather mediocre and very dirty painting above the altar needed repairing.

It was a very old, mediocre painting, but the desire for neatness if not religious compunction decided the priest to have it restored. When the workmen began on the painting, however, flakes of paint came off to reveal an eye beneath the outer layer of paint. With dispatch the painting was forwarded to Rome's Restoration Institute, where it was properly restored and cleaned over a period of many months.

When they were finished, they had uncovered the lost Madonna and Child by Simone Martini, Italian painter of the later 1200's and early 1300's. This was one of the greatest finds in art history.

Perhaps then, if you are lucky enough, that old painting you have may be the Borgia by di Lorenzo, and it will become another milestone in the history of paintings once lost, but now found and replaced by the treasure hunters of the world.

In the world of painting is one name which is familiar to many: Cuyp, the very famous family of Dutch painters who lived and worked in the 1500's and 1600's. Their works are listed among the great masterpieces of all time.

Yet, as with many of the great masters, there was at least one of their paintings which had disappeared-a painting of the embarkation of the Pilgrims for America. It is thought that this painting was an artistic representation of the actual scene itself, so that for all time the faces of the Pilgrim Fathers would be captured for posterity.

For many years this painting had been lost, until one day it was relocated by another painter who, strangely enough, was George H. Boughton, the man who himself painted such scenes as "The Puritans Going To Church" and "The Return Of The Mayflower."

How odd a coincidence that Boughton, who himself painted the Pilgrims, should have been the man to locate what was probably the only accurate representation of what the Pilgrims really looked like. Or perhaps it was the other way round, and Boughton found the Cuyp painting first and it inspired him to paint the Pilgrims.

Whatever happened, he had found one of the lost art treasures of the world. Its value? It would be impossible to judge the value of this particular painting today, but recently a Cuyp painting sold for $71,400.

Yet this was only one of the lost paintings, for there must be many hundreds of them if it were possible to list and catalogue them. The simplest way, of course, to search for lost paintings is to watch for the signature of the artist on any painting which you might find.

There is of course no way of telling, for example, that Degas or Rubens or El Greco painted such and such a number of paintings and that such and such a number are now missing. This would be an impossibility, but there is a very good chance that these artists did paint works, especially during their younger and struggling days, that have never been found.

Watch for their signatures on any painting that you find, and, even if you personally do not care for it, remember that the average person is not an art connoisseur. The question of the beauty and fame of a painting rests with the art critics, the museum curators, and the collectors.

Watch especially for the paintings of the Impressionists, works by such masters as Cezanne, Pissarro, Sisler and Renoir. Many years passed before these men were recognized. Their works were laughed at and ridiculed. No one wanted them. No one liked them. No one would buy them. There is no way of telling how many of their paintings were lost because of the little value they had at that time.

Watch for paintings by all of the great masters of the past. That old painting which you thought so little of might turn out to be one of the finest examples of the master's touch the world has ever seen. Tomorrow it might be hanging in the gallery of a famous museum -and you will be out buying your first yacht.