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Matthew Wilcox
Vice President | Mid Atlantic

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Published: 14 February 2017

Custer's Last Stand? | The Ongoing Process of Authentication

A piece of illustration art depicting Custer’s last Stand recently sold at auction.  Its road to a consummated sale was a long one, and fraught with art world peril and disappointment.

I originally saw the painting hanging in the entryway of a home in Maine almost 15 years ago.  It appeared to be clearly a work of N.C. Wyeth, in fact a study for a 1932 Lucky Strike cigarette advertisement.  Unfortunately, the owner said he had tried to get the painting formally authenticated, but no affirmative approval was given.  In the art world, such a lack of authentication means trouble.  Freeman’s could not handle such a painting, nor would any reputable house.

Determined to sell, the owner chose a small auction house in Massachusetts that found a way around the dilemma by simply using the art world’s traditional mitigating language.  The main title of the work described the painting as “Manner of” N.C. Wyeth. The qualifier typically means the painting was executed only in the style of a certain artist and at a later date.  In a strange case of cataloguing obfuscation, the body of the description uses the language: “Attributed to N.C. Wyeth,” which has a completely different meaning than “manner of.”  “Attributed to” typically means the auction house believes the work is “probably by” the artist. Indeed, the auction company’s pre-sale estimate of $200,000- $300,000 clearly communicates the idea that the painting was a real N.C. Wyeth.  Trying to have their unauthenticated cake and eat it too, the painting did not sell.

Almost ten years later the same painting came up at another small auction house, this time in Maine.  Strangely enough this time out, the bold description of the painting plainly indicated the art work was by Howard Pyle.  Pyle, the founder of the Brandywine School, had been the art teacher of Wyeth and many other notable illustrators. The school ceased in 1910 and Pyle was dead by 1911. How he could paint a work from 1932 is therefore a problem.  But again, later in the cataloguing the 2nd auction house uses other terminology: “Howard Pyle School.”  This would seem to mean that some artist other than Pyle, but working in his Brandywine School style painted this work. They did note that the painting was  “almost identical to the N.C. Wyeth illustration commissioned in 1932 for a Lucky Strike Cigarette ad.”  Estimated at $35,000 - $40,000, the painting finally hammered at $25,000.

I am watching for the next emergence of this painting on the market.  Authentication as a true N.C. Wyeth could happen.  Current authenticators could change their mind, or a future arbiter of authenticity may have a different view.  Perhaps Custer has not made his last stand after all?

Matthew Wilcox serves as a vice president in Freeman's Trusts & Estates department and is our Mid-Atlantic Regional Representative.

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