Jane Peterson, a fiercely independent American painter in the first half of the 20th century, will have two works for sale at Skinner’s Fine Paintings & Sculpture auction on Jan. 24. One of them, “Red and White Zinnias,” passed, as some paintings do, into a kind of obscurity for a time.
Edna, the 89-year-old retiree selling “Red and White Zinnias” through Skinner, wasn’t familiar with Peterson when she bought the painting at an estate sale in Ipswich on an August day in 1966. (We’re withholding Edna’s last name, upon request, to protect her privacy.)
Edna and her late husband had recently purchased a large Victorian house north of Boston. They went to the estate sale looking for andirons.
The sale was a scene. Edna remembers Miss Jean, the host of WGBH’s “Romper Room,” was there. She remembers an enormous mosaic pool table that Jackie Gleason purchased over the phone.
“It was a spectacular piece of equipment,” she said.
Then, a painting of orchids caught her eye.
“My dad wanted to buy it for her because she really liked it,” said Edna’s daughter, Linda.
The couple came home with 22 paintings. And no andirons.
The estate, it turns out, was Jane Peterson’s. The artist had died the year before, at age 88. But Edna wasn’t an art collector. She had never heard of Peterson. To be sure, the artist’s popularity had waxed, waned, and waxed again over the decades. Edna had enjoyed the paintings and hadn’t thought about their history or value. It wasn’t until visitors suggested she might have something important on her hands that she and Linda started to do research.
They first called Skinner in 2013, and Robin S.R. Starr, Skinner’s vice president and director of American & European Works of Art, came to the house to see the paintings.
“Some were actually stored in the attic,” Linda remembered, “where it’s hot, and cold. I had somebody bring them all down. Set them all up for Robin. She was shocked that they were still in good condition.”
Edna and Linda entered into a long-term relationship with Skinner, and specifically with Starr, whom Edna calls “trustworthy and dependable.” Since 2013, the family has sold five or six Peterson paintings through Skinner. That first one, Linda estimates, brought in close to $6,000.
Starr estimates “Red and White Zinnias” will sell for $2,000 to $3,000.
Peterson, born in 1876, loved doodling as a child.
“Her mother was very supportive and finally packed her off to New York with $300,” Starr said. There, she studied with modernist Arthur Wesley Dow. But she was turned down for teaching jobs because she hadn’t been to Europe.
“Any artist who was anybody had to go to Europe,” Starr said. “But what does a single woman at that point in time do? She certainly can’t go off by herself.”
Peterson found a chaperone. Another teacher, Henry Bayley Snell, was traveling to Europe with his wife. Peterson tagged along, and then struck out on her own. In Venice, she met and studied with painter Joaquín Sorolla.
“Dow had talked about arrangements of line and color and dark and light and all the design principles,” Starr said. “Sorolla teaches her color and spontaneity.”
Edna’s floral paintings, landscapes, garden scenes, paintings of Venice, and bird paintings burst with bold colors and dancing brushwork. The second Peterson painting at this week’s Skinner auction, from another consigner, is a watercolor of baby robins. Starr calls it “this little cutey.”
Linda dropped off “Red and White Zinnias” at Skinner’s Marlborough warehouse in December, where it joined thousands of objects in flux as they pass from consigner to buyer.
Starr had visited Edna, who had a houseful of treasures. People with fewer can bring up to three to consignment days or make individual appointments with specialists in areas from art to clocks to antique vehicles. Specialists work closely with consigners.
“When you think about it, sometimes it takes someone years to decide to part with something,” said Marie Keep, who serves as senior vice president, director of Fine Wines, and managing director of Skinner Galleries.
There is no cost to having an item appraised, unless you’re a fiduciary looking for a written appraisal. On a day in early January, one prospective seller came with an ancient bottle of cognac, another with a violin.
“We start with ‘This is really lovely. How did you come by this?’ ” Starr said. “And you have your little ‘Antiques Roadshow’ moment.”
Three criteria help specialists determine value: History, science, and connoisseurship. In fine art, Starr said, provenance often has holes (Edna is a rarity; she had her 50-year-old receipts). Science — beyond the black light in Starr’s office that exposes touch-ups — is pricey.
“The connoisseurship is the most important,” she said. “It’s a combination of what we are seeing and researching and knowing.”
Skinner has standard commission rates ranging from 10 to 30 percent depending on an object’s proceeds. They charge fees for insurance, transporting items from the warehouse to the Boston showroom, and the like.
Once an object enters the warehouse, it goes into databank. It is tagged and binned. Paintings and prints in cardboard boxes jam Starr’s department, stored upright on shelving and on the floor. An item — or a lot, in auction terms — will be photographed and represented online and in a brochure or catalog. Once it appears online, interested buyers may have questions, and specialists will do research or post photos to provide answers.
Items come and go. Skinner holds auctions nearly every week.
“When people think about auctions,” Starr said, “you think about record-breaking, multimillion-dollar sales. And what you see in the movies. If you scratch your nose at the wrong time, you’ve just spent a million bucks. So a lot of people are intimidated, and they don’t realize that auctions are actually a really great market to buy and sell for everybody.”
According to Keep, Skinner sold close to 32,000 lots in 2019.
On Jan. 24, “Red and White Zinnias” will have its moment. And so will Peterson. And Edna. And a buyer who, no doubt, shares their passion for effervescent floral paintings.
FINE PAINTINGS & SCULPTURE AUCTION
At Skinner Boston, 63 Park Plaza, noon, Jan. 24. Preview Jan. 22 noon-5 p.m., Jan. 23 noon-8 p.m. 617-350-5400, www.skinnerinc.com/auctions/fine-paintings-sculpture-3338b/