Case File: Mystery Moran


I inherited a piece of art I didn't like. I only checked into it so I could throw it out "guilt free." - G.R. Hastings, Santa Fe, NM


My Great Aunt Emmy left me an old picture in her will. I didn't like it, so I put it in the garage and forgot about it. It's not big. Just about 10 by 15 inches. But I kept running into it. After a few years, I decided to get rid of it. But first I wanted to be sure it was really just a piece of junk.

There isn't any signature on it. The only writing is on the bottom edge, and it says: PRANG'S AMERICAN CHROMOS BOSTON, YELLOWSTONE LAKE, COPYRIGHT 1875 BY L. PRANG & CO

So one day, I hauled it down to the library, and a librarian gave me a stack of art books to go through. But I didn't find any biographies for an artist named Prang. On a long shot, I tried the card catalog. There I found some books about Louis Prang color lithographs (I've since learned to call them chromolithographs).

Leafing through those books, I saw other Yellowstone pictures - all done by a guy named Thomas Moran. I went back to the artist biographies, and there he was. It seems Moran was a big wheel in art, a bit of an explorer, and even had a hand in starting up the National Parks, especially Yellowstone. That last bit told me why my Great Aunt liked the picture. She'd been one of the first waitresses at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, and had worked there for years.

The biography also mentioned "Moran's unique monogram." The librarian had given me a book on signatures and monograms. I looked up Moran, and found a symbol that looked like a cattle brand. I went back to my print and took another look. There was the monogram, just above the writing, and almost part of the artwork. At the end of the day, I knew I had an old copy of a Moran watercolor. Now what?

I eventually took it to a local appraiser. They checked it out, examined the printing, and so on. Finally, they told me this was a rare print worth around $6,500! But I'm not interested in selling it now.

The whole project went a lot easier than I thought it would. And it gave me much more inheritance than I ever expected!

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