Discovering Hidden Gold

Isn’t it funny how sometimes the smallest thing can be the key to a wealth of information? How one small sentence, in one document, can give you more than hours and hours of dedicated research?  This happened to me recently when I was going through one of the many folders of collection documentation.

While quickly scanning the piles and assessing what sized mountain lay before me, I stumbled across a three page document titled “Sir Joseph Ward a portrait, Van der Velden” and decided to have a deeper look. Inside, one page was dedicated to the artist, one to the subject, and the last was dedicated to the work itself. This latter intrigued me most. It is rare to get any solid provenance or history with an artwork, let alone have it written down all in one source such as this. After reading the attached handwritten letter I learnt that this document was compiled by the Auction House who sold the work to try and help it sell. It turns out that our Van der Velden Portrait of Sir Joseph Ward has quite a colourful history.

For years it adorned the walls of the Saint Albans Masonic Lodge in Christchurch where no one really knew its true worth. When it sold at public auction in 1995 it fell into the hands of someone with a careful eye who recognised it was a painting of considerable merit and sought treatment. They took it to an art restorer who cleaned the work and revealed the Van der Velden signature, top right corner. The subject was then identified by two highly respected art historians, Neil Roberts and Peter Entwistle.

Following this the painting passed into the hands of art conservator John Harper. The document stated that John restored the work and documented the process fully. With one google search containing ‘John Harper’ and ‘Art Conservator’ I had not only found John but also learnt that he was still operating today up in Golden Bay. With high hopes I sent John an email stating that I recently found a document indicating that he restored a Van der Velden work now in our possession. Initially john could not find the records, but after he requested any names that may have been associated with the painting at the time, he located the work in his system. Gold had been struck. John was able to send me a full record of the condition the work came in with and the work he completed. He also had before and after images. I leant details such as what paint colours and types were used for patches and that the work had its original varnish removed and replaced. Now when I notice these details they make sense.

John himself seemed more than happy to assist me with my query and in fact had replied to me in less than 24 hours. Funnily enough he had been having a true “Van der Velden” week, as he was, in fact, about to tell another client that their work also was a Van der Velden after discovering the signature. This family had always been told that their ancestor picked up Van der Velden one night in the pouring rain on a road side. He gave the artist food and a warm bed only to have the artist say I am too poor to pay you for your kindness but I can paint your portrait. Seems this story was in fact, FACT!  

Quite simply, I was incredibly lucky to have noticed that one simple sentence in one rather unassuming photocopied document. This just shows how detailed and focused collections people need to be on a daily basis. The lesson here is, if works can be connected to conservators, restorers, or auction houses you will often be able to uncover invaluable information and hopefully some real hidden gems. It is the breakthroughs in history and provenance of works that really make someone like me smile. It is knowing that I connected the dots even when the second dot I was looking for was fading by the day. Now it’s in permanent marker. 

Loren Baxter
Assistant Project Registrar