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Painting bought at a school auction in the 60s turns out to be long-lost work by Jacob Lawrence


A long-lost painting from famed American modern artist Jacob Lawrence is going on display in the New York Metropolitan Museum this week after it was discovered hanging in an apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

According to the New York Times, a recent visitor to the museum’s exhibition ‘Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle’ believed that the painting hanging in her neighbor’s apartment may have been one of the missing five panels from the work’s original series of thirty.

She contacted the owner of the painting who had picked it up at an art auction to raise funds for a music school some 60 years ago.

It was confirmed to be one of missing paintings, last seen in the 1960s, and was hung alongside the rest of the work in the Met on Wednesday. 

One of the five missing panels from Jacob Lawrence's series 'Struggle: From the History of the American People' was found this week in an apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side

One of the five missing panels from Jacob Lawrence’s series ‘Struggle: From the History of the American People’ was found this week in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side

The work was identified as panel 16 in the series showing 'Shay's Rebellion', pictured

The work was identified as panel 16 in the series showing ‘Shay’s Rebellion’, pictured 

The couple who owned the painting from the renowned black artist had picked it up for a modest sum at the auction. It is estimated to be worth more than $400,000, based on the sale of another panel from the series in 2018. 

They told the New York Times that they are not art collectors and had only become aware that it may have been part of a larger series when they read stories about the Lawrence exhibition premiering earlier this year at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

At the time, the curators had spoke about their attempts to track down the five missing panels.

The couple added that they had not reached out to the Peabody then as they had been traveling.

‘The painting has been hanging in my living room for 60 years untouched,’ one of the owners said, explaining that she bought it with her husband was she was 27.

She added that she is the daughter of immigrants who grew up in the Bronx and both her daughter and granddaughter are artists.

‘Last week a friend of mine went to the show and said, “There’s a blank spot on the wall and I believe that’s where your painting belongs”, ‘ she continued, adding that she was happy to share it as she loved Lawrence’s work. 

‘I felt I owed it both to the artist and the Met to allow them to show the painting.’

The rare discovery of a lost work has been celebrated by many in the art world.

‘It is rare to make a discovery of this significance in modern art, and it is thrilling that a local visitor is responsible,’ The Met’s director, Max Hollein, told the Times.

Visitors wearing protective masks observe COVID-19 prevention protocols as they browse the "Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle" exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Visitors wearing protective masks observe COVID-19 prevention protocols as they browse the “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Jacob Lawrence exhibition at the Met will continue for anote

The Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle exhibition at the Met will continue until November 1 with panel 16 joining the rest of the series before going out on loan

Barbara Haskell, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, said that the discovery ‘is ‘really something to be celebrated’ and it was ‘very exciting to begin to pull this whole landmark series together and see it as Lawrence wanted it to be seen’.

‘Given that this body of work was now just across the park from the owners, at the Met, that’s what tipped the balance for them to figure out a way to reach out,’ added Randall Griffey, the co-curator of the Met’s presentation.

The painting found in the apartment is Panel 16 from Lawrence’s series ‘Struggle: From the History of the American People’.

Griffey explained that he was initially careful about whether the painting was authentic or not but that the pictures were intriguing.

American painter Jacob Lawrence seated in front of some of his framed work

American painter Jacob Lawrence seated in front of some of his framed work

It was dated 1956, the same year that Lawrence finished the Struggles series, and the subject of the painting, Shay’s Rebellion, would line up historically with what would fit in Panel 16 in the work.

‘It’s a group of blue-coats — new American officials — in an obvious confrontation with hardscrabble farmers, which is what the Shays’ Rebellion is about,’ Griffey said.

Before the painting traveled to the Met, conservator Isabelle Duvernois visited it in the apartment to look at its condition.

‘If it had lived with smokers for the last 60 years, we wouldn’t have been able to show it without cleaning,’ Griffey said, but this painting was deemed in a safe condition for travel and exhibition.

Lawrence is regarded as one of the leading artists of the 20th century.

He painted ‘Struggle: From the History of the American People’ from 1954 to 1956 during the civil rights movement.

Its aim was to present a more inclusive view of American democracy by integrating black people, Native Americans and women into the historical narrative.

The work was little known as it was the only one of Lawrence’s series that had not been kept intact.

He created ten series in total.

It is believed that ‘Struggle’ was not initially well received in the late 1950s because of the incendiary politics of the time, with the McCarthy hearings underway.

After two disappointing showings, no museum looked to acquire the series and it was sold to a private collector, William Meyers, without any restrictions on keeping the panels together.

He began to sell the paintings in the series individually.

Jacob Lawrence is regarded as one of the leading artists of the 20th century

Jacob Lawrence is regarded as one of the leading artists of the 20th century

The Times reports that it is believed the first owner of Panel 16 offered it to the school’s art auction, which is where the current owners picked it up.

This is not the first of the missing panels to be discovered. Back in 2018, there were six missing but Panel 19, titled ‘Tensions on the High Seas’ (1956), resurfaced.

It was sold at auction for $413,000 (quadruple its high estimate of $100,000) to Harvey Ross.

He now owns half the series, according to the Times, and is the largest lender to the current Met exhibition.

The piece will remain on display on the Met for the next two weeks for the remainder of the exhibition before traveling to Birmingham, Seattle and Washington, D.C. on loan over the next year.

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