Published in the Courier News, Thursday, November 27, 2008 (online 11/28/2008)
Plainfield hopes painting draws big bucks
By MARK SPIVEY • Staff Writer • November 28, 2008
PLAINFIELD —A young fisherman who lived in Maine more than a century ago could unwittingly wind up being among the most generous donors in Plainfield Public Library history.
He was the model who posed for Winslow Homer's "Winding Line," an approximately 16-by-23 inch oil-on-canvas painting depicting a young man untangling a fishing line while leaning against a small boat on a rocky shore. The piece is emblematic of the native Bostonian's finest work, much of which details rural life along the East Coast toward the end of the 19th century.
The painting, along with two other Homer originals, represented a centerpiece of the library's extensive Fine Arts Collection for decades. But when funding for $6 million of long-term library renovations recently fell short by about half, the library board unanimously elected to convert a masterpiece into a windfall.
The painting, which has been appraised from $2 million to $3 million, matches a 1929 Georgia O'Keefe work as the most valuable piece available in "American Paintings, Drawings & Sculpture," a 184-lot auction scheduled next week at the world-renowned Sotheby's in New York City.
"We want this for the community, and they deserve the best," said library board President Anne E. Robinson. "So we did some soul searching about tailoring our assets to our mission."
According to Sotheby's auction notes, Homer, who ranks among the premier artists in American history, likely painted "Winding Line" shortly after his first trip to Prout's Neck, Maine, where he would live from 1883 until his death in 1910. A likely description of the work, the notes indicate, appears in the Nov. 6, 1875, edition of Appletons' Journal, a 19th century periodical covering literature, science and art.
The journal article, describing a series of paintings Homer completed during his 1875 summer vacation, notes a "very picturesque figure of a young fisher-boy, who left his nets for a good consideration to devote his time to the business of posing for Mr. Homer."
"In one of the pictures in which this boy appears," the article reads, "he is sitting upon the edge of a broad, round-keeled boat that has been drawn upon a pebbly beach, beyond which the blue seawater is dancing in a small cove."
The painting was first bought between 1875 and the turn of the century by Benjamin M. Day, who "probably acquired (it) directly from the artist," according to Sotheby's notes. After it was bequeathed to Day's widow upon his death, it was then left to Benjamin M. Day Jr., the couple's only son, upon her death in 1931.
The Day family, according to Da Rold, lived in North Plainfield for several decades in the late 19th century and early 20th century, when the library billed itself as a "Library, Art Gallery, and Museum." Benjamin Day Sr. even loaned out the three Homer works to be displayed during a library exhibit, Da Rold said, before his son donated them permanently the same year he inherited them.
Painstaking research was undertaken to confirm the painting's provenance, according to library director Joe Da Rold, who said the timeline of the work's ownership is indisputable.
"I will say Ann and I really have done a lot of homework," Da Rold said. "We even hired an attorney to search the wills from the Day family to make sure there were no errors, that all the records were correct."
It was during a February Chicago Art Museum exposition at which "Looking Over the Cliff," the library's Homer watercolor, was on display that officials were first made aware of a spike in value of their oil painting (the third Homer original in the collection is a lithograph).
"We'll put it this way: we always knew it was worth a lot, but it had not been officially reappraised in over 10 years," Da Rold said of the revelation that the work ranked toward the top end of some of the most valuable American paintings in existence. "The new appraisal really jumped out at us, being very extreme, and then it was suddenly costing us more to insure it."
Nearly $20,000 more, Da Rold added, as one of the library's greatest assets turned into one of its bigger headaches.
"Unlike the watercolor, which has been exhibited in major museums throughout America and included in important art books, the oil painting has been hidden away in storage," Robinson said. " As a neglected masterpiece, never seen or known in art circles, its value had suddenly become a liability."
It was for those reasons that the work, which had sat locked away in a bank vault for years — the risk of displaying it in the library was too great — was put up for auction. Research into the painting's provenance also revealed that Day's 1931 donation came free of restrictions against the library's use of it.
Library officials are hopeful that, being as an extremely limited number of Homer oil paintings have sold at recent auctions, the sale price of the painting can even exceed the upper $3 million end of the appraisal price. But no matter the end result, all funds from the auction — which will also include the sale of a library-owned bust of George Washington completed by 19th century sculptor Hiram Powers, appraised at from $150,000 to $250,000 — will be placed in a special "Library Heritage Fund," with strict limitations on its use.
Da Rold said the library plans to limit the fund usage to 5 percent or less annually, meaning the building will likely still be benefiting from the auction in 2028. Projects some of the fund are planned to be directed toward, Da Rold said, include completing renovations to the library's children's room, resurfacing staircases, exploring the possibility that the building can be partially operated by solar energy and even possibly building a two-story "technology tower" that would replace the 40-by-40 foot lower-level pool that occupies the atrium in the center of the building.
An agreement with Sotheby's will also result in the elimination of insurance costs for the library's Homer watercolor, Da Rold added. The auction house has also arranged the storing and insurance of "Looking Over the Cliff," and will present the library with a hand-painted reproduction of "Winding Line" to be displayed in the original frame.
The decision to sell, Da Rold concluded, though difficult, was the right move.
"The way I like to describe it is that we're really turning one asset into another," he said. "We had an asset in our cultural collection, and it's going to be a physical asset in improvements to the building."
Mark Spivey: 908-707-3144; mspivey@MyCentralJersey.com
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.