A few months back I saw an absolutely gorgeous painting come up for auction. The listing said it was by one of my favorite artists, Sam Hyde Harris. Unfortunately, the painting was unsigned, and it was listed at a pretty low price. Both of these things gave me pause while considering bidding on it. We all know how common fraud is in the art world. How could I be sure that this piece was genuine?
You can never be 100% sure that a piece is genuine. This is doubly true in an online auction where you can only see a handful of pictures of a piece. There were several aspects of this piece that made me think twice.
- It was unsigned
- It was a slightly unusual composition for the artist
- It was listed at a lower starting price than most pieces by Sam Hyde Harris
I took a risk on the piece anyway, and I managed to pick it up for a very reasonable price.
But that was only the beginning of the journey. Once I got the piece in my hands, I tracked down the Sam Hyde Harris expert Maurine St. Gaudens. Maurine literally wrote the book on Sam Hyde Harris, and she had the documentation from his estate to be able to conclusively prove whether a piece was by him or not.
Harris was a member of a group called the California Impressionists, so I wasn't surprised to find that Maurine was located in California. After speaking with her, I agreed to bring the painting down to her studio in Los Angeles, where she could authenticate it.
Maurine is an exceptionally interesting person. She is a tiny woman around age 70 with long brown hair down her back. She is an art conservationist, so her studio is absolutely overflowing with art. Her own collection hangs in every available spot on her walls, and the standing room is filled with paintings that she is working on.
Her collection includes dozens of paintings by California artists of the 20th century, and especially female artists about whom she also wrote the book.
When I arrived at her studio there was a very tall man wandering around as well. He turned out to be the noted Sam Hyde Harris collector Charles N. Mauch. When I handed the painting over to Maurine for authentication, Charles took me back to a garage and started showing me more paintings by Sam Hyde Harris. It turned out that they still had some paintings left over from his estate, and I was welcome to look through them and maybe even purchase a few (more on that in a future post).
Here's one of the beautiful pieces that Charles showed me.
When Chuck and I were done browsing the wonderful paintings in Maurine's garage I finally made my way back to her studio to hear the verdict.
Maurine was happy to tell me that the painting was a genuine Sam Hyde Harris. She was able to verify this in two ways. First, she found the painting in the inventory made by the estate when Harris died. Second, she had actually seen other versions of this painting. It turns out that Harris made multiple sizes of most of his paintings. He first made a sketch, then a very small study, then a 12x16 version, and finally a larger version. She had seen the larger version of my painting in the past, so she knew that mine was indeed legitimate.
She was also able to tell me, based on the inventory number, that the painting was created some time in the 1930s. So it's a relatively early easel painting for Harris, because at that time he was more focused on his career as an illustrator.
She authenticated the work by painting her mark on the front and signing the back. I drove it back to San Jose, where it now sits above my desk. I think it's one of my favorite pieces in my collection right now, along with the big Quincy Tahoma painting that I had restored.
Buying a painting like this at auction is always a bit of a risk, but in this case the risk paid off in spades. Not only did I get to hang a beautiful piece of California history on my wall, but I also got to meet some amazing people. It goes to show how a great piece of art can inspire and unite people even many years after its inception.