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Some pieces in collections have left a trail of mystery

An archival photo shows an array of busts as they were displayed at the summer home of  Clara Endicott Sears, founder of  the Fruitlands Museum; they are being featured in a special show through March.

Fruitlands Museum

An archival photo shows an array of busts as they were displayed at the summer home of Clara Endicott Sears, founder of the Fruitlands Museum; they are being featured in a special show through March.

Several years ago, a longtime Concord resident was taking a walk along the banks of the Sudbury River with his granddaughter when the little girl tripped over a peculiar relic. It was a spearhead dating from the presence of Native American tribes approximately 10,000 years ago, by the estimate of local historians.

Today the sharp-edged stone is part of the permanent collection at the Concord Museum, whose director, Emer McCourt, remains fascinated with the slender artifact. Simple as the spearhead is in terms of construction and use, McCourt cannot help but puzzle over one basic question: How did it sit on a riverbank for 100 centuries before being discovered?

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Museums are full of mysteries and stories like these: puzzles about an item’s origin or use, legends regarding its ownership, ambiguity surrounding its history. Whether the object is a relic, a painting, a sculpture, or some other medium of expression, it may carry a trail of unresolved details about where it was created, or the journey it took before arriving at the museum.

The Davis Museum at Wellesley College recently added to its collection an 18th-century Peruvian painting called “Portrait of a Young Woman,” the back story of which reads like a Hollywood whodunit.

After glimpsing the painting in a Christie’s auction catalog, adjunct museum curator James Oles traveled to New York for a firsthand look. Oles, a Wellesley faculty member and an authority on Latin American art, knew that if this piece proved authentic, it would make a magnificent addition to the museum’s collection.

“My first question was, is it even real,” Oles recalled. “It’s so unique and different from so much of the art sold at auctions, which tends to be modern or contemporary. The next question was what condition was it in, and the third question was whether it was legally and ethically something we could buy.”

A careful examination with the help of a colleague assured Oles of the painting’s authenticity and fine condition, but he still had a number of unanswered questions. Who had painted the portrait? Who was the woman it depicted? And, not least, why was there a tag on the back of the painting identifying it as the property of the Warner Bros. Studios prop department?

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Since acquiring the piece on behalf of the Davis Museum, Oles has found answers to some of those questions. Sleuthing is familiar work to art historians, after all.

“Upon inspection, we realized immediately that it was very similar in many ways to a painting in the Brooklyn Museum,” Oles said. “That painting shows a woman standing in the same way and wearing the same kind of shoes.”

The painting in Brooklyn is attributed to an artist who was working in Lima in the late 18th century named Pedro Jose Diaz, according to Oles.

“We don’t know a lot about him, but he painted all the viceroys,” Oles said. “If you were an aristocrat or one of the richest people in Lima, Peru, in the late 1790s, you’d go to this guy. So we believe we can attribute this painting to Pedro Jose Diaz as well.”

And as for the Warner Bros. Studios label? The son of the woman who owned the painting when it went up for auction remembers his mother saying many times that the portrait had appeared in a Bette Davis film.

“I’ve watched every Bette Davis film I can find, looking for that painting, and I haven’t found it used as a prop,” said Oles. “I’ve had my students watch every Bette Davis movie they can find, and they’ve never been able to find it either. It’s possible that it was used in filming but was then cut out of a scene. But Bette Davis was indeed a Warner Brothers Studios star. So if this painting was there during her time, that means it’s been in the US for many years, which makes us feel very comfortable that it is ethically and legally purchasable.”

Not all museum mysteries trace their way to Hollywood, but many involve intriguing personalities.

The Fruitlands Museum in Harvard recently decided to air out a collection of busts found in the summer home of its founder, Clara Endicott Sears.

“In one part of her summer house, she kept busts of philosophers, gods, and goddesses,” said museum curator Michael Volmar. “The area where she kept this display was a centerpiece of the house; it was where she held luncheons for academics and scholars.”

After Sears died in 1960, the house was torn down and the statuary stored in an outbuilding until recently, when the collection was taken out and examined. There were 10 busts in all — some marble and some plaster — and half were not identified.

“We really wanted to know who these people were and why they were in her home,” Volmar said. “Those we recognize are the Concord philosophers Hawthorne, Alcott, and Emerson; the Greek goddess Athena; and Asclepius, the Greek god of physicians. Then just last week at our annual meeting, one of our trustees recognized one of the busts as a copy of one he had seen in Italy. It was Julius Caesar. So now there are just four we haven’t identified.”

Sometimes museum officials are in the position not only of pursuing mysteries but of solving them. This was the case for Concord Museum curator David Wood.

While organizing a current special exhibition called “The Best Workman in the Shop: Cabinetmaker William Munroe of Concord,” Wood was able to answer a question that one of Munroe’s descendants had about a miniature sideboard she had long considered missing.

The piece’s very purpose was somewhat unusual, according to Wood, because while miniatures were usually made as toys or doll house furniture, its exquisite design and fine condition indicate that it was never a toy.

Wood said the carved conjoined hearts on its lid provide the answer: it was a romantic gift from Munroe to his wife, and its fully functioning locks suggest that it may have been intended for keeping jewelry.

But for many years, the descendants of the early 19th-century craftsman did not know where the miniature sideboard was.

“In the 1930s, the family that owned it lived on a farm in upstate New York and one year didn’t have enough money to plant a crop of potatoes. So they sold it,” Wood said. “According to one account, they sold it in 1933 to an antiques dealer who drove a Bentley and paid $500 in gold dollars.”

Before it was gone, the family took a picture of the sideboard on their porch, attesting to their heartbreak. Wood said he has traced records suggesting it was sold to an antiques dealer just a few years later for $1,200 — equivalent to the price of two new Fords at the time.

Eventually, unbeknownst to the family, the piece made its way to its current home, Winterthur, a museum in Delaware started by Henry Francis Du Pont with an extensive collection dedicated to fine American craftsmanship; it is loaning the piece to the Concord Museum.

“Last year, I went to see Mary Miller, who is a descendant of William Munroe and a dean at Yale, to talk to her about a project I was doing related to William Munroe,” Wood said. “I just casually mentioned that the miniature sideboard was at Winterthur; I didn’t realize the family had no idea where it was.”

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.

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