June 23, 2014

Finders Keepers - A Winslow Homer on the Rubbish Tip

This is such an interesting story. I hope I can do it justice. I originally saw it on BBC's "Fake or Fortune". As a genealogy and art history buff, some of the research gave me goosebumps.

Ok. Back in 1987, a fisherman, Tony Varney, found some art left lying around near the gate of a rubbish tip in the south of Ireland. Even though one of the pieces was signed Winslow Homer, Tony didn't know what he had. He didn't bother to research it at all and gave the painting to his daughter Selina who gave house room to other things her dotty old dad collected.

The small watercolour was of three white children wearing ethnic costume. Somehow in 2008, Tony and Selina got their wits together and took it to The Antiques Roadshow where it was confirmed by expert Philip Mould to be a work by Winslow Homer, one of America's most important 19th century artists and valued it at £30,000.

Philip Mould, art aficionado extraordinaire, cleverly knew that this painting would realize a higher price in US, where Winslow Homer is more highly esteemed. Mould had the painting packaged and sent off to Sotheby's in New York.

Phillip Mould's team of researchers went through the rest of the contents of Tony's cardboard portfolio. They found interesting things like a ticket to a costume ball at the Governor's Mansion in the Bahamas, a painting done by the Bahamian Governor's wife. They determined that Sir Henry Arthur Blake, the Governor of the Bahamas from 1884-1887, had his ancestral home in Ireland. Myrtle Grove, County Cork, was about three miles from the rubbish tip where Grandpa Tony found the painting.

Mould's lawyer was left to do due diligence and related to Mould, and the viewers, that the descendents who lived at Myrtle Grove were unaware of the painting and ignorant of the fact that they even owned it.  They had never registered a burglary.

Philip Mould jetted off to the archives in the Bahamas where he found on microfilm newspaper details of the costume ball at the Governor's mansion. Who was in attendance? Mr. Homer.  What were the children wearing? The same pseudo-Turkish costumes as in the painting. A later social notice said that Winslow Homer intended to paint the Blake children in their Turkish costumes. Eureka!

By this time, Sotheby's in New York had authenticated the watercolour and because of the provenance, had estimated that the picture would now reach at least $250,000 - about 5 times the original estimation.

So everyone back home in Coventry, England was very excited. The painting had been professionally cleaned and framed. It appeared in Sotheby's catalogue. Selina and her dad Tony went to New York for the sale. Twenty four hours before the sale, the Blake family in Ireland decided that "hey, that's our painting. We could use some of that lovely lolly to fix the roof of our ancestral home" (I'm paraphrasing).

Magnanimously, (I'm being sarcastic) they tell Selina she can go ahead and auction off the painting and she can keep 25% of the proceeds as a finder's fee OR auction it off and Sotheby's could hang onto the money until they could work  out ownership later. Selina, rightly pissed off, said the sale should go on and ownership could be worked out later.

The next day, ten, ten minutes before her lot was going to come under the gavel,  Blake's great-great grandson Simon Murray appeared in New York and said that Selina would have to take a 30% finders fee, but with out an agreement as to who owned the painting, he could not let the sale go on. Selina Varney rejected the revised offer and Sotheby's decided to withdraw the painting as they could not guarantee a good title to any potential buyer.

After this fracas at Sotheby's, the painting, now dubbed Children Under a Palm Tree,  was placed on the Art Loss Register. Why, I don't know. Covering their behinds, methinks. They know where it is now - under lock and key in Sotheby's New York. The family believe it disappeared from Myrtle Grove after a series of robberies in the 1980s, although Philip Mould notes that there was no crime reported. According to Great Grandson Simon Murray, his family didn't know that the painting was stolen until it was put up for auction at Sotheby’s. Simon Murray conducted further research among his family's papers and found a letter which described in detail the circumstances under which the painting was produced. When the Fakes or Fortunes episode aired in June 2011 ownership was still the subject of a legal dispute.

"I think we would rather keep it," said Simon Murray, who, as a lawyer, is still representing his family's interests. "It is such a special picture. The colours are wonderful. It's a very significant part of my family's history and we really want it back." Riiight...

The Varney's had the painting in their possession for two decades with no claim on its ownership and no report of any burglary on the part of the Blake/Murrays. I say that unless they can prove that Grandpa Tony stole the painting then tough titty. I say Finders Keepers.


Young at Heart said...

wow........utterly brilliant tale........I agree!!

Jenny Woolf said...

Ye gods what a story. Fascinating. It seems pretty obvious the Blakes wanted a piece of the action, and all the stuff about "part of our family's history" sounds a little unlikely. OTOH, although Grandpa Tony sounds like a nice old bloke, it doesn't really sound like he has a good title to the stolen item. It seems as if it could be stolen property, even if he didn't steal it. I am not a lawyer but I'd want to know why the painting wasn't reported lost when the house was burgled, surely something went and if the burglary wasn't reported, why not?

To the law, the personal details won't be important but I'd guess that this is one that could keep the lawyers nice and busy for ages.

Alistair said...

Hullo C-Pup,

I saw the programme over here when it aired first back in Sept and felt much the same as you. The family suddenly realised that something they HAD owned but one of their forebears had decided to toss out as rubbish was worth a shed load of dosh that wasn't going to be coming anywhere near THEM - and that just couldn't be allowed to happen for goodness sake, especially as it had turned up in the hands of one of the grat unwashed. Ergo it would seem - it must have been stolen! {Even though they didn't know they owned it, or where it should have been, or why it wasn't locked away in a vault/hanging on the wall of the family pile.

I thought their antics and tactics were disgraceful and like you feel they should have been able to prove that it had been stolen and not deliberately discarded. THat they chose to make a grandstand play at the very last minute showed they calculated that the 'poor little working class girl' purporting to now own the thing would cave in under the pressure and they would swan off with the bulk of the lolly.

A disgrace.

Nice story.

Kathy Bischoping said...

I just love that there's someone named Mould.

Kate Hanley said...

I agree Finders Keepers! What a great story, I love this stuff. If you find out more, do tell.

Giulia said...

Well, it would be nice if they could keep it...but if the law was finder's keepers, Jewish families would have nothing to go on when trying to reclaim their art works. Because many who ended up with the art did not steal it but bought it in good faith.

Good story. I missed this one.

Diane said...

I guess in Britain 'upper' and 'class' don't always go together.....

Yvette said...

I agree: Finders Keeper. The painting was THROWN OUT in the rubbish. NO burglary was reported.

I'd say if nothing else, then split right down the middle. 50/50 sounds about right.

KIttyMcPrtty said...

I just saw this program and I definitely think "finders keepers" should apply here. Selina and Tony have had this painting among others for years. They took them on good faith to the Roadshow to see if they were worth anything. They were and were sent to Sothebys who did their due diligence (though they probably could have done some more) but they did what was necessary. They talked to a family member who then talked to more Blake family members and no one knew anything and she called Sothebys back and said they knew nothing about it. So that was that. But when 'ol Simon Murray heard about it and what it might be worth (and being an attorney) man he had to jump on the bandwagon. No one on the Blake side was interested until big $$$$$ was mentioned in the paper. First Murray wants the money and to fix up the old homestead, but then he comes back with no maybe they'll keep it since its an old family portrait. Oh sure he'll keep it ... all the way to the bank. I'm sorry but he's greedy, they weren't interested in this even when they thought "their relative" painted it. Someone in that family threw it out. They should have no claim to it now. It should go to Selina and Tony. Good Luck Selina.

Lancashire rose said...

Just saw this program on the TV. Totally fascinating. Who to believe? Not that Simon Murray I can tell you> When he made that comment about Selina probably already having spent the money on a swimming pool etc. Ye Gods. Isn't that just typical of some toffee nosed barrister. Why did he have to tell us he was a criminal barrister and was now....... Finder's Keepers indeed.

Anonymous said...

I can not believe the audacity of some people! For the Blake family to come forward to "claim" a paining they didn't even know existed is so petty. I think the truth lies in what the grandson said when he mentioned the need for money to upkeep the family home. That's the bottom line. The painting needs to be sold and a fifty/fifty split would be fair.

Anonymous said...

Saw the BBC program tonight. Fascinating stuff! Murray seems to be a right proper twit, but he argues a good claim for ownership. You would do the same if you were in his position. I believe strongly that his family owned the painting, but were poor custodians and somehow lost track of it. However, Selina and Tony should be offered 50% for saving the artwork from oblivion.

Case settled...where's my fee?

Anonymous said...

Just saw a re-run of the show, i really feel for the young woman who has been dragged through the mud. It is so obvious the "Family"especially the representative, think they are "SPECIAL"
I agree with most of the above comments, but must add one thing MR Blake is looking at Easy money, and knows he made among many mistakes by whining about the upkeep of the family home. Thus the "we will keep it- family History"comment.
If he is in such a lucrative proffession he should help with the up keep.Also the family cant be doing to badly, mummy was away for what must have been months leading up to the Auction, and planning another trip to the Flower Show, most Working people cant afford to flit here there and everywhere. They have acted quite SHABBERLY Bugger the 50/50 give Selina and Tony the lot, just because of the others "Bad Manners"

Michelle in OZ

scott davidson said...

I had fun choosing this particular painting online that now hangs in my downtown office,
from Wahooart.co, who sells canvas prints of art masterpieces. While the original is treasured in some
art museum in England, my print http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/Opra/BRUE-8LHS4U, of this painting by Edward
Burne-Jones is very much appreciated by my staff and clients. The print quality is really excellent.

Anonymous said...

I just watched it, and it makes my blood boil! They never would have cared about getting the painting back if it were worthless! 50/50 At the MOST for the Blake family!

Anonymous said...

finders keepers
The well spoken gent is a creep and low life.

Cheers, A Canadian

Nan | Wrath Of Mom said...

I just finished Phillip Mould's The Art Detective and was wondering if there was any resolution to the Winslow Homer controversy. Do you know if this has been resolved? I can't find anything recent on the internet.

I hope the legal version of Finder Keepers Losers Weepers plays/played out. The Varneys deserve the money more than Simon Murray and his family.

Stephan White said...

I just saw this program and I definitely think "finders keepers" should apply here.
Glyn Willmoth

Anonymous said...

Of course we don't have all the background information about this case.

Few questions came to mind when watching this.

1) Did BBC contact the Murray family? They did research to trace the ancestors and found out that myrtle grove is near the place where the paintings were found. Why didn't they go knock on the door and ask about the painting. Or did they get this info from Sotheby and pose it of as their own research..

2. There is no proof of ownership shown in any evidence posted to the public. For all we know it could have been given away/lost in a poker match and the next owner threw it out.

Here's murray's contact info, if somebody wants to give him some feedback.



Anonymous said...

This is so treacherous on the behalf of the Blake family. My opinion is that the painting was discarded back in 1987 when it was found by Mr. Varney at the town dump. Someone from the Blake family clearly decided to throw it away. This has happened before; in 2007 a woman in NYC found a painting worth $1 million in some trash on the curb in front of her apartment. And now Mr. Murray, who by the way is a civil litigation lawyer who sues people for a living, has smelled some money and has decided to use his law degree to steal the money that should go to the Varney family. Truly shameless!

dave gellert said...

easy, cut it in half, its probably still worth a lot after then

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Selina should let them have the painting after the Murrays have recompensed her for 22years storage, restoration costs, Sotheby's fees, emotional distress and any other relevant out of pocket expenses. I would love to see some high profile lawywer take on Selina's case pro bono. I'm sure Selina, who seems like a level headed, intelligent and emotionally mature woman would have been open to fair negotiation but I don't blame her for digging her heels in when she was insulted, patronised, stereotyped and delivered an unreasonable ultimatum. I have a watercolour of a Scottish Loch, ostensibly by a known Scottish artist circa 1900 - don't know who - which I bought for $4.00 on a flea-market. It was priced at $5.00 and I had no intention to buy it but I advised the stallholder he should ask more as it was quite a competent watercolour - I thought it might fetch $50.00. His reply was you can have it for $4.00 so I bought it. I wasn't interested in making a profit so still have it. I think I'll not bother trying to uncover its provenance!

Anonymous said...

Seems Sotheby's didn't do the research they said they did- and did not inform the family until the day before the auction. Also seems like the producers of "Fake or Fortune" were all for going ahead with the sale so they could pat themselves on the back- yeah they still went ahead with it with an unbalanced one sided story about a rich family vs. a "poor mother and children". I didn't buy that story BTW and I bet if the picture was thrown out by a Blake family member, all of the rest of them had no say in it. I.e. it still belongs to the Blake family. I'm not rich either, but I don't think it's pompous to expect your own property back (with or without a sob story on TV).

Michael Farrell said...

Agree. No evidence it was stolen. Disengenuos at best to claim it was a prized possession of the family that was sorely missed. May be a bit harsh to suggest he is a money grabbing grab. Where would be entitled to anything. Maybe he misheard the question about his job and thought it was "what is the best job you would have like to have?". Possible about his mother recognizing it in the newspaper when no mention or recall was ever made in family discussions. No "remember that painting of ... I wonder what ever come of that. We will have to clean out the spare room one day."

alan ford said...

It just goes to prove that the rich want more and more and more.
The three basic human emotions are.....GREED GREED AND GREED. Alan Ford

nicholas said...

Ther is clear evidence that the picture was "discarded on common ground" The new owner found & kept it in good order for 20 years Surely that is adequate proof of ownership and that facts that Sotherbyies doid due diligence needs documenting.

Therer legal profession stinks and never more so in the form of blake family grandson,greed is
s rarely more clearly demonstrated

Machiel Van Der Aar said...

Just saw this incredible story on a BBC's Fake or Fortune rerun. Despite the fact that the descendent of the Blake's is a regular A**HOLE, I must say Ms Varney is really one dumb, poor and greedy woman: She was in tears when she heard the painting was worth 30.000,- during the antiques roadshow; enough money to send her 5 (!) kids through school with. But when she was offered to negotiate with the Blake descendents for a finders fee up to maybe 40% of the selling price at Sotheby's, she chose to decline this real money to gamble for some ficticious amount that only existed in her HEAD. Philip Mould should have given her better legal advise. She'll now be paying lawyers fees for the next 10 years, no money left for her kids' education, a painting which value has been damaged AND multiple other claims on the painting popping up after the show was aired. Just for her own foolish pride. The painting only brought her misery and poverty! Ironic isn't it? That's greed and selfishness for you there. A real cautionary tale!

Anonymous said...

If the courts hold up the Blake's claim then all is lost in what's right and wrong with the legal system. It is SO CLEARLY big fat lies coming from the Blake's. It seems so obvious that the rightful owner of the painting is Selena! I sure hope she has a great who wins this case for her AND makes the greedy, smarmy, lying Blake's pay for her legal fees. LET JUSTICE BE DONE PLEASE!!!!

Anonymous said...

There's a third party involved now, Selena has borrowed money against it how that can happen when the owner dispute has not been settled beats me. She used the money to buy the pub she and her new husband have so she will have a big debt if it goes back to the Blakes I would have thought. It all seems a bit odd to me, nothing adds up or makes sense.

Anonymous said...

In November 2013, a new claiment for ownership of the painting emerged. Clifford Schorer says Selena Varney (used the painting as security for a loan.

The Clever Pup said...

Oh my goodness. It wasn't REALLY that kind of throwing-around money. She bought a pub? I used to think it was odd that Phillip Mould left her with those legal costs. I don't feel so sorry for her now.

The Clever Pup said...

Oh my goodness. It wasn't REALLY that kind of throwing-around money. She bought a pub? I used to think it was odd that Phillip Mould left her with those legal costs. I don't feel so sorry for her now.

Trevor said...

Original article is from November 2011, which in turn is about an earlier BBC programme.
What's the update on this sorry saga?
What (if anything) has happened in the last30 or so months?

Anonymous said...

The painting may have been either gifted or sold by a deceased family member. Why is this possibility ignored. That would explain why no theft was reported. The recipient may may not have placed any value on it and subsequently discarded the painting if it had been a gift. Conversely a buyer may have decided that it was a poor decision and not suitable and so just discarded it.

Anonymous said...

Here's Wiki's page about the painting including the ownership fight that now has two new claimants.

It includes this most-recent report from Nov. 2013:

Andrew in Toronto

Anonymous said...

I think Selena should keep fighting, so what she has bought a pub, what did everyone expect that she was going to sit around and wait for this to sort itself? She owns a business now, good for her!
I feel that the Blake family saw the £s and decided they want this piece of discarded art that they never knew of and never wanted until money was mentioned and how the money was needed for upkeep of family home/manor/mansion etc.
One last thing, in the whole episode not once did Selena poormouth, in fact she wanted to keep money up for a future for her children and that was when it was valued at 30k. The person who did poor mouth was that smarmy little runt the all high and mighty Mr.Murray!


roger key said...

Selena, you keep fighting sweetheart. This no good jumped up money grabbing little SHITE. Should have reported the incident when it happened, not 20 odd years later. I believe Tony and Selena should keep every thing. The should also Sue that jumped up up start of murry for every thing they can get. And by what I can findout about him on the internet, HE IS ONLY A SECOND RATE MONEY GRAB ING LITTLE SPOILT BRATT

Anonymous said...

Had Selena's father not decided that he liked the discarded and unframed picture when he found it outside the tip, the painting would have been destroyed by rats or the elements. Selena's father gave it to her, not knowing it had any value - just that they both liked it.

Twenty years later, after being told it could be worth up to 30,000 pounds, Selena agreed to have it restored. Mould and Selena were told by Sotherby's that they had performed "due dilligence" before agreeing to auction it in their USA auction rooms.

The attitude and behaviour of Murray was disgusting, and I do not blame Selena for refusing his insulting "finders fee" offer. I don't think I would have been so polite when talking to him.

To avoid a lot of undue expense and distress, I think a court should order a 50/50 split minus all of Selena's expenses (restoration, fees, travel, storage, legal costs etc etc). Selena should also take him to court for defamation due to his accusations of theft and comments about her lifestyle and his (imagined) plans for the money (swimming pool and car). What a turd!

Selena should also sue Sotherby's for their negligence in doing an obviously insufficient check for any legitimate owners.

I hope Selena and her children are happy with her new husband and their new business. She will be good in business after this experience.

Anonymous said...

I have just seen the program Fake or Fortune featuring this story. I find it incredibly hard to believe that the gentleman doing due diligence on behalf of Sothebys who stated that he spoke to the Matriarchs daughter who assured him she had spoken to her mother and that they did not own a Winslow Homer painting, lied.

Suddenly after realizing the worth of the painting and that legal action would cost nothing (the son is an attorney), it was suddenly time to fight for a painting they claimed not to own but now do. Then, to state that they dont think they want to sell now because suddenly its a priceless family portrait that they quite like, is highly suspect as well. How on earth will they afford the upkeep on their grand estate without selling the work of art. The son actually gave this as a reason for selling the painting in lieu of keeping it.

Now, the painting is claimed to have been stolen in a series of robberies in the 1980's that were never reported and in which the family can not state what else was taken at the same time. That a robber would have entered the home and stole a painting would indicate they knew the value of the artwork and that it was on the premises. And, if they knew the value, it would never have been left at a dump for Tony to find.

It is more likely that they had a clearout at some point at the house and had no idea what the painting was and its value and chucked it out. Now, if you remember correctly, there were other paintings found with the one in question and one of them was signed by Mrs Blake who herself was an amateur painter. Notice how anxious they are to get their hands on that or the other items found at the same time which obviously pertain to the family.

These are wealthy people with the money and knowledge to fight this fight until Tony's daughter can no longer continue on financial grounds or just the sheer stress of the situation. The painting was put on the missing art registry and Tony's daughter was visited by the police and spoken to about the possibility of trouble because of handling stolen goods. Thats the real classy act that is the Blake descendants.

This family lacks any integrity in handling this situation. A fair offer would have been 50% of sale proceeds or if they want to keep it, £40000 that Tony and his daughter were originally advised that it was worth. They had to have watched that program when it was broadcast and how they could watch the program and think that their course of action was/is just, tells you a great deal about the character of this family.

Unfortunately, they are far better placed to fight harder and longer with relatively little expense to themselves and this may be what is required to win the dispute. They may in the end own the painting but they also now own the dents to their reputation for being unwilling to be fair. If Tony had not picked up the painting, it would long ago have hit a landfill and rotted into oblivion and the Blake descendants would never have missed a painting they never knew they had anyway.

Ron Tocknell said...

Possible scenario: A local jumble sale. The Murrays, wanting to do their bit for the community, donate some items they consider to be of little or no value... including a watercolour that had never even been framed, let alone cherished. Although, had they lost it or even knowingly thrown it away, they would retain a legal claim, once it is given away, they have no further claim on it. Perhaps whoever bought it (probably for a few pence) later decided they didn't want it and discarded it or perhaps it didn't sell and the organisers of the jumble sale discarded it. Either way, under such a possible (if not likely) scenario, the Murrays would have surrendered all claim to the picture. The "burglary" is unlikely as it was never reported to the police. If it was disposed of in this way, the new owners (either the jumble sale organisers or whoever bought it) would have legal claim.
Without of the painting's theft, the Murrays cannot prove ownership even if they can prove it had once been in their possession. Without evidence of how it ceased to be in their possession, they cannot now claim legal ownership. They would have had more chance if they's simply said that they had thrown it away without realising it's value. The "burglary" story is too thin to be given any credibility and, having now made that claim, they can't now change the story to a more credible one. They shot themselves in the foot with that unlikely story.