Thomas Hart Benton Watercolor & Drawing, ca. 1940

Value (2008) | $30,000 Retail

I chose to bid on this at an auction for the purpose of raising money for our local museum. And I was fortunate enough to gain possession of this drawing.

Tell me why you liked it.

I love water. There's something about living and moving on the river.

We have the riverboat here and boathouse here and it very much looks like the Mississippi or the Missouri, perhaps. Thomas Hart Benton was from the Kansas City area and he spent a lot of time around the river in that area. Benton is considered one of the leaders for the Regionalist school. That is, realist painters that were painting roughly in the early to mid 20th century and they were painting the landscape, farming scenes, in the Midwest, primarily, although Benton also painted in Martha's Vineyard. He had a house in that area. He also was a muralist. Now, what you brought to us today is a watercolor and drawing. You can see that the artist probably started out with a little bit of pencil here and then he uses pen and ink and then sort of a sepia ink wash painted with a brush to highlight various elements of the piece. Although I don't believe this to be the original mat and frame, you'll see that the mat is quite old. It has an acid content, and that could cause staining or damage at some point, so you should have it reframed. We don't see a signature on the piece. There's a little bit of pencil here, and it's possible there could be the signature of Benton underneath. And so, again, it would be good to take it out of this mat so that you could see whether it's signed. But what's interesting about this piece is that it actually has provenance that seals the fact that it's by Benton. On the back of the piece, in a little envelope, there was a photograph of the piece. And if you turn it around, it's actually inscribed by the wife of another Regionalist painter, John Steuart Curry. Curry is one of the other well-known members of the group, and he and Benton were friends. And his wife is writing that Benton and Curry exchanged works of art, which artists often did, and that Curry had this in his collection and that the exchange was done around 1940. So most likely this piece was done around that time. Now, how long ago did you buy this?

It's been awhile. Time goes so fast. I would be embarrassed to tell you.

How much did you pay for it?

Five hundred dollars.

Well, of course, the market for American art has risen significantly in the last ten years, and certainly even in the last two or three years. And Benton is extremely popular as a Regionalist artist. If this piece were in a gallery, I believe that the asking price in the gallery would be $30,000.

Mmm, thank you for this information.

His oils can be well over a million dollars.

I'm just sorry I didn't buy more. (laughing)

Appraisal Details

Debra Force Fine Art, Inc.
Debra Force Fine Art, Inc.
New York, NY
Appraised value (2008)
$30,000 Retail
Chattanooga, TN (July 19, 2008)
20th Century
Ink, Watercolor
July 15, 2009: In this segment, appraiser Debra Force discusses a ca. 1940 watercolor by Thomas Hart Benton. After the episode aired, a viewer wrote in to say that a similar illustration appears in the 1939 limited edition of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." Force reviewed the book and believes that the Benton watercolor is possibly another version of this illustration, or a study for it.

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