Follow the Stories | Washington, DC (2011)
The Taj Mahal Painting
Jack with his unsigned, ca. 1880 oil painting of the Taj Mahal, which he received as a wedding present in the mid-1970s.
The exotic subject and extraordinary detail of the unsigned painting led appraiser Colleene Fesko to attribute the work to the American Orientalist painter Edwin Lord Weeks.
Editor's Note 6.27.2011: This article has been updated. Read more below »
At ROADSHOW's Washington, D.C., event in August of last year, a guest named Jack from Arlington, Virginia, turned up at the Paintings table with a magnificently detailed oil rendering of the Taj Mahal that he said he'd treasured since receiving it as a wedding gift in the mid-1970s. Appraiser Colleene Fesko noted that while the painting was not signed, its style and subject matter strongly suggested it was by Edwin Lord Weeks, an American painter of the late 19th century known mostly for working in a style called Orientalism. Weeks was a Bostonian who traveled widely during the 1880s and produced a number of colorful and meticulously romantic scenes from the East. In Before a Mosque (shown at bottom right), for instance, we can see a close similarity in the artist's sense of color, composition, and eye for architectural detail, which he was able to embellish, as Fesko pointed out, through the relatively new medium of photography.
The caché for Westerners is in the exoticism of the unknown East. The more romantic, the more over-the-top — the better
On-air, Fesko put an auction value of $30,000 to $50,000 on Jack's picture, with its striking view of a universally admired landmark and its provisional attribution to Edwin Lord Weeks. But she also called it a research project and said that if it could be confirmed as the work of that artist, the value would likely be considerably higher.
So what happened?
We followed up with Jack recently to see if he had done any work investigating the painting further since coming to ROADSHOW last summer. Sure enough, a lot has taken place since then. This winter, Jack retained Maryland-based art expert Camellia Blackwell to help authenticate his painting of the Taj Mahal. With his interest piqued from the visit to ROADSHOW, Jack wanted to find out for sure if his painting was a genuine Weeks. "I always loved the painting and thought it was beautiful," he said, but in the midst of plans to downsize to a smaller home, Jack also thought he might consider selling it.
With further research, Blackwell was able to authenticate the painting, and secure in the knowledge that he had a genuine work by Weeks, Jack decided that he did want to pursue selling it. He got in touch with a private art dealer in New York City that Blackwell had recommended, and this spring, the dealer drove down to meet with Jack and see the painting in person. Jack says he sold his Taj Mahal picture to the dealer for around $100,000.
The Taj Mahal was built in the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife, and practically ever since, the building has seemed to occupy the Western mind as an elegant and evocative symbol of the exotic East. The Orientalist movement only intensified that effect, as globe-trotting artists like Weeks began bringing back idealized depictions of strange and alluring scenes from faraway places. And according to Fesko, that point is still key to the market appeal of such a beautifully executed painting as the one Jack owned. "With Orientalist paintings," Fesko explained recently, "the caché for Westerners is in the exoticism of the unknown East. The more romantic, the more over-the-top — the better. So this was a 'perfect storm' of a painting."
As to selling such a work of art that he says he's always loved and admired, Jack confesses, "I certainly had mixed emotions." Yet he and his wife don't seem to regret their decision. And they're enjoying the proceeds — they say they recently bought a new car.
Update June 27, 2011:
On June 6, 2011, this view of Taj Mahal was sold in London at an auction of Russian paintings, where, after additional research, a different conclusion had been reached about the artist. The painting was cataloged as The Taj Mahal, Evening, by the 19th-century Russian painter Vasily Vereshchagin, with an initial auction estimate of between $400,000 and $700,000. The final hammer price was approximately $3.64 million. "I knew that was a great painting," appraiser Colleene Fesko says, "and I'm so pleased it received the necessary research I discussed and, ultimately, the market attention it deserved."
For more information and works by Edwin Lord Weeks, see:
Edwin Lord Weeks — The Complete Works.
Biographical information and images of paintings by Edwin Lord Weeks.
See the Washington, DC (2011) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.
Luke Crafton is the senior interactive producer for Antiques Roadshow.