A Masterpiece in the Attic: Some of the Greatest Surprise Art Finds

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes. Photo: Charles Platiau, Reuters.

This might be the understatement of the year: the world is full of surprises. Every so often, you hear about a truly astounding art discovery that comes right out of the blue: a long-forgotten canvas is found while cleaning out Grandma's attic; a rare antiquity is unearthed at a flea market; or a new attribution transforms an ordinary work of art into a priceless masterpiece. Just this week, it was reported that an oil painting depicting Jesus, trodden underfoot at an antiques fair in Avignon, might in fact be the original work of Renaissance great Raphael.

A possible Raphael, Noli Me Tangere. Credit: Colin Usher, Telegraph.

But how often does this really happen? If the long-running success of the television program Antiques Roadshow is any sort of barometer, the odds aren't astronomical that you might have some hidden treasure worth a surprising amount of money among Grandpa's old belongings. But these finds rarely make headlines. On occasion, however, true masterpieces are found in the unlikeliest places, lurking in attics and basements, just waiting for someone to discover their true value. We combed through MutualArt's database of art news articles from the last ten years to find out where to start looking.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Portrait of a lady as Flora.

First place to check is your attic, preferably your French attic, which is by far the most popular place for hidden family heirlooms that might be worth a lot of money. In 2008, an exquisite Giambattista Tiepolo masterpiece that had been discovered in the attic of a French chateau sold at auction for a stunning £2.8 million ($4.2 million), exceeding its pre-sale estimate by nearly £2 million. The Portrait of a lady as Flora had been hidden away in the attic by the vendor's grandparents, who perhaps felt a bit prude about a nude. In April of this year, another French attic produced a stunning long-lost Caravaggio painting, depicting Judith beheading Holofernes, and bearing the hallmark dark drama of classic Caravaggio. It was located behind a locked door in the attic, chanced upon by the house's owner while trying to repair a water leak. Quite the hidden treasure: the work is valued at more that 120 million euros, or $136 million. In September of 2013, the Van Gogh Museum unveiled an 1888 Van Gogh painting that had been banished to a Norwegian attic for years because of a passing suggestion that it might be a fake. It was subsequently rejected twice as inauthentic, but was finally authenticated by the Van Gogh Museum based on new evidence. Hidden masterpieces in the attic might also reveal further family secrets: in June of 2015, it was reported that a Scottish man discovered a Picasso painting rolled up and stashed in a suitcase in his mother's attic, while also learning that the painting had been a gift to his mother from a Russian soldier--his real father. And in a sensational story from 2010, a brother and sister chanced upon a Chinese antique vase in the attic of their deceased parents' house in London, and put it up for auction at Bainbridges Auction House. Expecting to sell it for between £800,000 and £1.2 million ($1.3-1.9 million), the siblings were shocked when the auction floor turned into a fast and furious bidding war. After 30 feverish minutes the Qianlong vase was sold to a Beijing-based advisor for a record-smashing £53 million ($85 million). Even the auction house director was flabbergasted at the intense demand for this Qing dynasty heirloom, admitting, "I didn't quite realize how exciting it was."  


Vincent Van Gogh, Sunset at Montmajour, 1888. Herman Wouters for The New York Times.

Another great place to look is the basement. In September of 2015, an unknown painting, found in a New Jersey basement, went up for auction; the owner expected it to sell for $800, but it ultimately fetched $870,000 after three aficionados recognized it as an early work by Rembrandt, one of a series of small allegorical paintings he had executed as a very young man. (The fifth painting in the series, which illustrates the five senses, is still missing.) The basements of museums have also yielded some notable surprises in recent years, including Madrid's San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts' discovery of a Van Dyck Madonna, in 2011, which for years had been considered a copy. And 2010 saw a number of museum-basement-related finds, including an early Velásquez, discovered in the basement of Yale University's museum, and the Staedel Museum's rediscovery of a work by Ludwig Kirchner in its basement.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Unconscious Patient (An Allegory of the Sense of Smell), 1624. Getty Museum.

Antique shops can sometimes house overlooked masterpieces. In May 2014, it was confirmed that a painting bought at a Spanish antique shop for around $200, 20 years earlier, was indeed an early work by the artist Salvador Dali. It had fooled everyone for so long because the date inscribed on the painting read 1896 (eight years before the artist was born) rather than 1921 (the date that infrared, x-ray, and ultraviolet tests determined), possibly meant by the artist as a joke or an experiment with numerology. A Van Dyck painting identified on Antiques Roadshow in 2013 took the title of the most valuable work of art ever appraised on the television show, with presenter Fiona Bruce estimating its value at up to £500,000 ($780,000). It had been purchased 12 years earlier, at a Cheshire antiques shop, for only £400 ($625).

Salvador Dali, The Intrauterine Birth. Photo: AFP/JIJI.

Valuable works often surface among the junk at rummage sales and flea markets. A Philadelphia resident, for instance, ended up with a great find when a striking, modern necklace, bought for $15 at a flea market, turned out to be a piece of jewelry designed by Alexander Calder. In 2010, a man named Andy Fields bought a bundle of sketches for $5 at a rummage sale in Las Vegas, discovering in it a previously unknown, early drawing by Warhol. These finds, though lucky, don't always yield the desired results. Without the stamp of approval from the Warhol Authentication Board (it became defunct before they could gather enough evidence to authenticate the drawing), Fields could not put the drawing up for auction--except on eBay. (In August of 2013, the eBay auction took place with the starting bid set at £1.25 million ($1.5 million). It got zero bids.) Works that have been previously stolen or missing from museums sometimes show up, incognito, at flea markets. A print by Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer was discovered at a flea market in the French town of Sarrebourg, it was reported in August, 2016. The print was returned to Stuttgart's Staatsgalerie, whose name was stamped on the back of the print. It had been missing since WWII. Another stolen work, this one by Renoir, reportedly turned up at a flea market, where it was snatched up for a measly $7. When the bargain hunter tried to sell the work at auction, however, it came to the attention of the Baltimore Museum of Art, from whom the painting was originally stolen, in 1951. It was returned to the museum in January 2014.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paysage Bords de Seine, 1879. Photo: Potomack Company / Associated Press.

You can also get lucky on the digital equivalent of the flea market: eBay. In 2014, a collector found an original watercolor by Victorian artist Richard Dadd on eBay, unattributed and included as part of a larger collection of works for sale on the online bidding site. The painting was purchased for a mere £200 ($330), while comparable works are regularly sold at auction for tens of thousands. And in February of this year, the BBC show Fake or Fortune appraised a painting by Post-Impressionist painter Edouard Vuillard, at £250,000-350,000 ($310,000-436,000)--one of a pair of works with a distinct oval shape. The other canvas had been sold on eBay to a mystery buyer for only £3,000 ($3,750), or "the bargain of the century."

French School, 13th Century, Virgin and Child Enthroned.

Often enough, however, these modest, unassuming artworks with priceless pedigrees are hidden in plain sight. An ivory carving of the Madonna and child, purchased in 1949 in London for £80 (or about £2,600 or $3,260 today), spent the next 50-odd years sitting on a mantelpiece, assumed to be a fake or a Victorian copy. In 2013, it was reported that historians traced the carving back to the Bridgettine nuns, dating it to the 13th century - transforming a piece of mantelpiece kitsch to a bona fide Gothic ivory worth £1.2 million ($1.9 million). It was sold at Sotheby's in 2013 for nearly twice that. And in 2010, the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen was surprised to find that a painting hanging in a reception room, that was attributed to one of Rembrandt's pupils, was by the master himself, instantly increasing the painting's value from 80,000 to 8 million euros ($87,500 to $8,750,000).

While some truly incredible works seem to have materialized out of thin air--the Caravaggio behind a locked door in the attic, for instance--most of the great discoveries in recent memory have resulted as a reappraisal of an existing work that was overlooked or underestimated. Clearly, art's value is not inherent to the object. It often just depends on whether the right pair of expert eyes has assessed its worth. So, once you've rummaged through the attic and investigated the basement, take a closer look at what you already know you have. Could that old canvas be misattributed? And have you had it appraised recently?


--Natalie Hegert