In the spring of 2014, shop owner Tim Beavin bought the contents of a storage unit at an auction in Essex Junction, VT, and made a stunning discovery.
On its own, the unit already was a good buy at $660. It contained carefully packed moving boxes chock-full of artwork and antiques that easily could be sold on eBay or at his vintage shop, Old School Cool, in Montpelier, VT. One item in particular, however, set Beavin’s heart racing.
It was a framed oil painting of a young woman titled “Little Rose.” A plaque on the frame bore the name of James McNeill Whistler, the famed 19th century portrait painter.
Whistler’s works are highly coveted in the art world. He’s best known for “Whistler’s Mother,” a stark portrait depicting his mother in a rocking chair. Even minor works by the artist are worth a small fortune, such as a pastel drawing that fetched $650,500 at an auction in 2012.
But Beavin faced a problem, and it was a big one—proving that Whistler actually painted “Little Rose.”
“Imagine scratching a lottery ticket and it just says ‘winner,’ with no dollar amount. I couldn’t sleep at night,” Beavin told The SpareFoot Blog.
Pieces of a Puzzle
Beavin’s first stop was Whistler expert Margaret MacDonald at Scotland’s University of Glasgow. Without a paper trail, MacDonald couldn’t authenticate the painting, but she couldn’t deny that it was painted by Whistler, either.
“She thought that the style was a little bit different,” Beavin said. “She made it clear that it was just an opinion.”
Beavin said one auction house told him that without overwhelming evidence, experts wouldn’t authenticate a painting for fear of getting sued. In the absence of authentication, Beavin started doing his research. (An authenticated Whistler painting, “Little Rose of Lyme Regis,” is housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA.)
The initials G.S.M. written on the back of the painting offered the first clue. This enabled Beavin to trace the painting back to George S. Hellman, a prominent New York editor and art dealer from the early 1900s. Since then, Beavin has been poring over Hellman’s papers, which are stored at the New York Public Library.
Combing through the papers, Beavin discovered that the painting was prized by Hellman, who got the piece from a man named Merton Clivette. Clivette purportedly acquired “Little Rose” from Whistler at the artist’s Paris studio.
“I have evidence from experts in Hellman’s time stating this painting is real, two of whom knew James McNeill Whistler personally,” Beavin said.
According to Beavin, Clivette once mentioned having some letters that the painter had written to him. Beavin said he’d love to get his hands on that correspondence.
“If any of those [letters] spoke of the painting, that is the real smoking gun,” Beavin said.
Beavin remains on his quest for supporting evidence, and he’s taken an unconventional approach to finding it.
Beavin has turned to social media to help research the painting’s history. He set up a Facebook page displaying images of the painting in hopes that someone out there might be able to help.
“Where my head is at right now, I just want to validate this,” Beavin said. “By creating this Facebook page, it also helps gives the world a chance to see this.”
Beavin plans to present his research to MacDonald once he’s sure that he’s gathered enough information.
“It may take me years to prove ‘Little Rose’ is real,” Beavin said, “but I’m enjoying the ride and all the support from everyone.”
Photos courtesy of Tim Beavin