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Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art researchers hunt down history with few clues
Sol Wilson, Fishermen on a Wharf, n.d. Collection of the New York City Department of Education.

AUBURN, ALA.- Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University is exhibiting the politically charged collection “Advancing American Art” in the most complete grouping since 1948 in “Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy.” One hundred seven of the original 117 works that were part of the final sale are accounted for in the touring exhibition, and 106 are on display at Jule Collins Smith Museum through January 5, 2013; but, according to Dennis Harper, one of the principal curators, 10 paintings are still on the most wanted list. The hope is that through the exhibition and publications, someone out there might recognize a missing piece of history.

For Harper and his colleagues, the effort involved in tracking down the artwork is similar to detective work. In addition to researching museum web sites and inventories, they questioned expert witnesses. “We talked to friends of ours in the field who are collectors. ‘Here’s the list of missing paintings, you’re interested in this type of art’,” said Harper. “’Have you seen for instance this painting of a turkey’?” Everett Spruce’s “Turkey” was an open and shut case. They also looked at sales records from the 1948 War Assets Administration auction and other contemporary documents.

The case of John Marin’s “Sea and Boat” had clues dotting a trail from the Southwest to the Atlantic Ocean. “We had a missing painting. We knew the size. We knew the date. We knew the subject. We had a general title,” listed Harper. After seeing a black and white and somewhat blurry photograph, a scholar tipped the team off to a painting sold to a private collector by a Texas dealer.

The dealer had brokered a sale with an unidentified buyer that seemed to match the missing work. “They showed the photo to the owner, who said ‘no, nice painting but not mine,” explained Harper. “But, we did eventually find the Marin in a museum in Boca Raton, FL where it was ‘hidden in plain sight’.”

Another work that the team tracked down was Sol Wilson’s “Fisherman on a Wharf” in New York. Harper credited the tenacity of Dr. Mark White, curator of the Fred Jones, Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma. “It was sold in ’48 at the War Assets Administration auction and then went out of view. No one could find it when a similar exhibition to ours was put together by the Montgomery Museum of Art and the Smithsonian in the eighties,” explained Harper. “It was hanging in a high school administrator’s office.” School administrators were unaware of the historical significance but happy to loan the work. “They had it restored, photographed, crated, and sent it to us.”

The exhibition is up at the Jule Collins Smith Museum, but Harper is going back to basics. “I’m looking through sources of exhibition records, gallery records, museum collections, private and public collections.” The 1948 sales catalogue lists “Watercolor Landscape” by Yasuo Kuniyoshu, which Harper believes may be Kuniyoshi’s “Way to Rockport,” a title he found listed on an old gallery receipt. “We don’t have a photograph of it, which would certainly help,” he said. “It’s things like that, trying to poke in every corner that you can think of and see if something sounds likely. Most of the clues don’t pan out, but every once in awhile they do.”

“There’s a chance that some of the paintings could have been destroyed, burned in a fire somewhere, thrown in a dumpster, you never know, but hopefully not,” said Harper. “I think that eventually most of these will turn up. Probably they are in the possession of people who appreciate them but have no idea that they belonged to a historically significant collection from the State Department.” With a web site and full color catalogue of essays and reproductions, someone might see the missing inventory list and spark a new lead.

With recent coverage of the yard sale Renoir, the forgotten Picasso at an Indiana museum, and the Goodwill painting that sold for nearly $30,000 at auction, Harper believes that these types of discoveries generate audience interest in uncovering treasure. “With venues like ‘Antiques Roadshow’ and television and media that can draw attention to it, I think that maybe there is a little more intense search these days for the masterpiece hiding in the attic.”

The search for Harper, despite the stops and starts, is still rewarding. “It’s fun to try to do that kind of research because of the surprises. When something does show up you feel really successful” he acknowledged. “There are many more dead ends than treasure that you find in the closet.”

After the show closes in Auburn, “Art Interrupted” then travels to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, the Indiana University Art Museum, and the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia. To see the list of missing inventory and learn more about the collection, go to

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