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DISCOVERY; October 2011

By Stacia Lewandowski

Of the many interesting facets in our day-to-day work as dealers of historical art, one of the most gratifying can be when we are asked to be detectives, of sorts.

On occasion someone will present the gallery with a piece of artwork that is unsigned and unidentified. We are asked to examine the work in order to help with the attribution of the artist. Frequently, the work is not distinguished or skillfully executed, or it will be of a genre type that is not within our realm of expertise. In those instances, we will decline. But we never try to dissuade people from asking, because on rare occasions the artwork presented is very interesting and the findings can be very exciting.

For example, there was the time when the gallery received a call from a friend who lives in England. While strolling in a small town near Cornwall, the man had come across a quaint antiques shop and went in for a look. To his surprise, he found some curious drawings that were done by a very skilled hand. There was no artist attribution. What was particularly striking about these works, was that the subject matter was obviously of the American Southwest. How did these drawings find their way to Great Britain? Our friend purchased the three drawings and subsequently set out to identify the creator of the drawings.

Having spent a good deal of time in the American Southwest, the new owner began to call on art dealers. After one dealer was stumped – the drawings were not in his area of expertise -- Zaplin Lampert Gallery was recommended. The drawings were sent by courier to Zaplin Lampert Gallery. Upon opening the package, it did not take long for us to begin to hypothesize about the artist attribution. Each drawing depicted an element of Native American life or scene. How would we determine to whom the expert draftsmanship of these drawings could be attributed? There were several identifiers: the manner of the hand (as distinctive as is handwriting), the type of medium (graphite and China White), but more than anything else, it was the depiction of the rocks in the drawings. Everyone at the gallery agreed, it was the work of Peter Moran.

Peter Moran, the brother of Thomas Moran, had made several trips to New Mexico in the late 1870s and 1880s. During these sojourns, he made numerous sketches that later became etchings and paintings. Though his home and studio were in Philadelphia, Moran also spent a good deal of time in England, making the acquisition of those drawings in a British antiques shop no longer quite the mystery it was first thought to be.

Though people here at Zaplin Lampert Gallery had come to a conclusion about the creator of these drawings, we decided to go one step further to authenticate our attribution. There was an opportunity right here in New Mexico to compare these drawings to other Peter Moran works in a major collection. With 71 watercolor sketches, the Roswell Museum and Art Center holds the largest repository of Peter Moran's Southwestern works. We jumped at the chance to see how the drawings we had in hand would compare. Richard Lampert personally brought the three drawings to the museum and viewed them side by side with the works in the collection. He also enlisted the opinion of the museum's former Curator of Collections, Wesley Rusnell. The Peter Moran attribution was affirmed and the curator provided his own written attestation for the drawings.

Other instances of discovery over the years include works that had been listed in publications as being in an unknown location. The work of art was known among the artist's total oeuvre, but over time had come to be thought of as lost. Two such occurrences happened in recent years. We came across a work that looked to us as possibly being an example from the Transcendental Painting Group. This was a group that came together in New Mexico in 1938 and was active only until 1941. The painting was presented to us from someone out of state. When we looked at an exhibition catalogue published by the Albuquerque Museum in 1982, we found a picture of this exact painting, illustrated in black and white, and listed as "Photograph of a lost painting." Something similar occurred with a watercolor painting by Thomas Moran. The title was known since Moran titled and dated the painting in pencil in the lower right corner. Found listed in “Thomas Moran: Watercolors of the American West, the painting was also depicted as "dimensions unknown" and “unlocated.”  

It goes to show, significant works are still appearing -- making the hunt and the find still possible. So if you have questions . . . we just might have the answers!

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