Follow the Stories | Tampa, Florida (2006)
"So Is It a Buttersworth?" (Actually, No.)
Posted: 1.9.2006 - Updated: 1.23.2006, 5.26.2006
Appraiser Debra Force explains that marine paintings have enjoyed increasing popularity in recent years.
With careful restoration, according to Debra, the painting could be worth upwards of $500,000.
Though unsigned, the painting bears telling hallmarks of the eminent marine painter James E. Buttersworth.
With tremendous attention to detail, Buttersworth even depicted sailors at work on deck as the yacht slices through the waves.
"Oh my Lord in heaven."
That was the awestruck response of Patsy, a visitor to the Tampa ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, when she discovered that a large marine painting of hers, which she thought was worth a few thousand dollars, might be worth as much as a half-million. But appraiser Debra Force told Patsy that her unsigned painting only held such staggering value if it had been painted by James E. Buttersworth, a premier marine painter of the late 19th century.
As soon as Patsy got home she began investigating who painted her picture. She brought in a local appraiser to take digital images of the painting, which were then sent to Skinner, Inc., the Boston auction house. Steve Fletcher, Skinner's Americana director, brought in Charles Lanagan to look at the painting. Lanagan isn't an appraiser, a dealer, or even an academic with a specialty in marine paintings. He's a retired treasurer for a truck dealership who was turned on to sailing vessels by his father, a sailor of a square-rigged vessel for the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in the 1920s. About 30 years ago, Charles became interested in marine paintings and he gradually became an expert.
After further research, a handsome marine painting initially attributed to 19th-century artist James E. Buttersworth is found instead to be the work of Antonio Jacobsen
"This is just a passion," said Charles, who became a consultant for Skinner a few years ago. "For me, it's the pursuit of knowledge. It's the hunt." When Charles looked at the photos of the painting, he immediately recognized the yacht as The Dauntless, a famous schooner built in the 1860s. Just to make sure, Charles compared the yacht against other paintings that Buttersworth had done of The Dauntless. It was the same yacht. Still, Charles knew that looking at photographs of a painting is not the best way to assess one. "You can get fooled by photos," Charles said, noting that an enhanced photo might not reveal the condition of a painting, for example, or repairs that had been done. Charles knew that he needed to see the painting in person, so he flew with Steve to Florida, and was immediately impressed by what he saw.
"The photos didn't do the painting justice," he said. Patsy noticed that Charles didn't just examine the painting in one glance. He kept visiting it, and then stepping away for 10 to 15 minutes, like a suitor trying to assess a potential mate. "You don't just stare at it," Charles said. "You have to go back and look at the painting a few times. That way, you see things when you return that you didn't see the first time."
One of his first observations was how well the painting was composed. "Your eye goes immediately to the yacht," he said. He explained to Patsy how well the painter had handled the sea at the schooner's bow, which creates the illusion of a schooner speeding through water. He spoke of the care the artist took with the details, such as the accurate depiction of the vessel's bell and rigging. "It indicates an artist who knew the sea and how vessels were rigged," said Charles.
"Each time he looked at it," Patsy noticed, "he seemed to like it more."
As Charles examined the artistry of the painting, he ruled out other marine painters of the same era, such as Antonio Jacobson and Elijah Taylor Baker. He felt confident assigning an "attributed to James E. Buttersworth" to the painting — as good as it gets when a painting is without a signature.
Every Painting Holds a Story
But for Charles, examining art is about more than identifying the painter; he takes pleasure in imagining the story behind it. "This painting has the yacht so prominently displayed, it probably was done for its owner," Charles believes. "It's a 'Wow' painting meant to impress the people who looked at it." Charles discovered that The Dauntless was built in 1866 and was the flagship of the New York Yacht Club in 1871. The yacht was owned between 1867 and 1878 by J.G. Bennett Jr., a wealthy yachtsmen who belonged to the New York Yacht club. Charles suspects that Bennett commissioned the painting, one of the largest ever done by Buttersworth, to show off his yacht. There's a flag on the secondary vessel in the painting that Charles suspects might be Bennett's, but he's going to have to do more research to pin that down.
Patsy loved learning the history, but she also had a more practical question for Steve and Charles: Should she have the painting cleaned? Nearly in unison, Steve and Charles said she should leave her painting alone. "If you take it to a restorer who's not familiar with marine paintings, the lines that are the rigging could disappear," Charles explains. "If it goes to the wrong person, the value can be dramatically affected." Besides, museum buyers, collectors and dealers often have their favorite restorers, and enjoy seeing what a painting looks like before they restore it.
Patsy was thrilled to find out her painting may indeed be as valuable as suspected. Based on his conclusion that the painting is a Buttersworth, Charles put an auction estimate of $300,000 to $500,000 on it. (*See update below.) Patsy plans on selling the painting at Skinner's Americana sale on February 19th. "I don't want to be responsible," she says, "for something that valuable in my house.
Editor's Note — Update 1.23.06:
Since the episode's airing on January 9th, the story of this painting's origin has become a bit more complicated. Other experts, unsure of the Buttersworth attribution suggested on-air by Debra Force and corroborated later by Charles Lanagan, have begun additional research to verify the painting's attribution. Some believe that the painting was more likely done by Antonio Jacobson than Buttersworth — a possibility that Lanagan considered but ruled out. For now, the painting is still planned for sale in the Skinner auction to be held February 19th, according to Skinner's Americana director, Steve Fletcher, who added that the value of the painting may be somewhat less — though still probably six figures — if it turns out that the attribution is not to Buttersworth. Antiques Roadshow will post further updates about the outcome of this story as they become available.
Since the last update to this article in January, and after much additional research and debate, this painting was determined to be the work of the late-19th-century artist Antonio Jacobsen — not, in fact, of James E. Buttersworth, as had been originally thought. Nonetheless, as scheduled and with revised attribution, the painting went on the auction block February 19th and sold for the record price of $281,000.
See the Tampa, Florida (2006) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.
Ship, Sea and Sky: The Art of James E. Buttersworth, by Richard B. Grassby, New York: South Street Seaport Museum, 1994.
A Yachtsman's Eye: The Glen S. Foster Collection of Marine Paintings, by Alan Granby and Ben Simon (editors), New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Paintings & Drawings category:
Hopkins Watercolor: Was the Guest Right? (Portland, 2005)
A Real Andy Warhol? (Honolulu, 2007)
A Lost Little Picasso (Philadelphia, 2007)
Inside "Outsider Art" (Tucson, 2007)
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a contributor to Antiques Roadshow Online since 1998.