In 2017, a woman in New Hampshire unknowingly purchased an original painting by American painter N.C. Wyeth for $4 from a Manchester thrift store and hung it in her bedroom. Now, that painting is expected to fetch between $150,000 and $250,000 when it hits the Bonhams Skinner auction block on September 19.
The painting is one of four N.C. Wyeth illustrations featured in a 1939 edition of Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel Ramona. Set in mid-19th-century Southern California, the novel highlights the United States government’s mistreatment of Indigenous populations. Wyeth’s painting depicts Ramona, the orphaned half-Scottish and half-Native main character, with her foster mother Señora Gonzaga Moreno.
Wyeth had already established himself as one of America’s most beloved illustrators by the time he created the four works for Ramona. He’d crafted paintings for a 1911 edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1882) and led a successful career in advertising by creating imagery for brands including Coca-Cola. Although Wyeth also made non-commercial art, his legacy has largely confined him to the field of illustration.
N.C. Wyeth had five children, the youngest of whom was painter Andrew Wyeth.
The seller, who wished to remain anonymous according to Bonhams Skinner, was searching for antique frames at Savers thrift store when she found the dusty Ramona illustration in the middle of a stack of old paintings. She searched but didn’t find anything about the artwork online. A few years later, she revisited the illustration and posted pictures of it in a Facebook group called Things Found in Walls – And Other Hidden Findings. Members of the group pointed her to the Brandywine Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, where Wyeth lived and worked. Later, she posted photos of the illustration to a Wyeth Facebook group. Conservator Lauren Lewis, who had worked at Wyeth Study Center at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Maine, reached out and eventually drove down to New Hampshire to take a look at the artwork.
“It was in remarkable condition,” Lewis told Hyperallergic in an email, although the conservator noted a few scratches and a layer of grime. She said she was “99% certain that it was authentic.”
Ultimately, the painting’s owner brought the work to Bonhams Skinner.
Kathleen Leland, a specialist in American and European art at the auction house, told Hyperallergic that she noticed multiple clues pointing to the illustration’s authorship. The painting’s flat, direct composition and utilitarian frame — likely a practical choice made by the artist to protect the work in transportation to the publisher — suggested it was a real N.C. Wyeth.
“But the element that made me most excited was the partial label on the reverse,” Leland said. “Beginning in the mid-1930s, Wyeth used a particular type of artist board — Weber ‘Renaissance’ panels, distinctive for their red backs and elaborate labels — and this was the case for this painting.”
The Bonhams team hasn’t been able to track the painting’s provenance before its arrival at Savers thrift store but thinks it was likely gifted by Ramona‘s publisher to an editor or someone at Jackson’s estate. Art historians know the whereabouts of only one other Wyeth illustration from the book.