Valuable artworks aren’t always displayed in museums, or owned by private collectors or foundations. In some rare cases, they've slipped through the cracks—either because the artist didn't become famous until after his or her death, because the technology to properly verify a work's provenance didn't exist, or because the owner wasn’t savvy enough to realize they were sitting on—or staring at—a cultural goldmine.
Here are six instances in which long-lost paintings surfaced to prominence after years of being stashed in garages, attics, or basements. In addition to being amazed, maybe you'll gain the motivation to clean your own storage spaces in search of forgotten treasures.
1. A CONTESTED CARAVAGGIO PAINTING
In 2014, French homeowners in Toulouse discovered much more than just a puddle in the attic while trying to fix their leaky roof. Tucked away in the rafters was a hidden painting that may be the handiwork of Italian artist Caravaggio.
The painting—a version of the artist’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (1599 to 1602), on display in Rome’s National Gallery of Ancient Art—was cleaned and analyzed in Paris, where experts debated its true origins. Some experts claim that Louis Finson—a 17th-century Flemish Baroque painter who both studied and imitated Caravaggio’s style—created the work, while others believe that the Renaissance master painted it himself sometime in the early 1600s. (According to Finson’s will, the Flemish painter owned a copy of Judith Beheading Holofernes, but it disappeared around 400 years ago.)
Art expert Eric Turquin asserts that the attic Caravaggio is indeed genuine, citing its brush strokes, intricate details, and use of light and energetic style as proof. Other experts, like British art critic Jonathan Jones, claim that the painting lacks Caravaggio’s “psychological intensity” or signature realism. Meanwhile, the contested Caravaggio work continues to be a magnet for controversy. In 2016, art historian Giovanni Agosti resigned from the board of Milan’s Brera Art Gallery after the institution displayed the work alongside authenticated Caravaggio paintings.
That said, you won’t be seeing the polarizing Judith Beheading Holofernes replica showcased abroad anytime soon: The French government has placed an export ban on the canvas until November 2018, to prevent it being snapped up by an international collector.
2. A NEWLY AUTHENTICATED VAN GOGH LANDSCAPE
In 1908, Norwegian industrialist Christian Nicolai Mustad purchased a 19th century painting of the French countryside at sunset, called Sunset at Montmajour. It once belonged to Theo van Gogh, noted art dealer and brother of Vincent van Gogh. Initially believed to be the famous artist’s handiwork, the 1888 artwork was reportedly relegated to the attic after the French ambassador to Sweden visited Mustad's home and suggested it was a fake. There it sat until the collector’s death in 1970.
New homeowners suspected that the painting might be a van Gogh, so they brought it to Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum in 1991. There, experts gave preliminary confirmation that the work was inauthentic, partly because it lacked a signature. But a few years later, art historians used new technologies to reexamine the painting, leading them to a decidedly different conclusion.
In 2013, van Gogh historians announced that Sunset at Montmajour had indeed been painted by the iconic Post-Impressionist painter. They noted that it was painted on the same type of canvas, and using the same techniques, as paintings van Gogh had completed in Arles, France. Also, it was listed as part of Theo van Gogh’s collection in 1890, and had “180”—the painting’s number in his collection inventory—painted on its back.
Adding to their certainty, an 1888 letter from Vincent to Theo described the painting in detail, and even mentioned the very day he’d painted it. (Before this, experts had mistakenly believed that van Gogh had been referring to another painting, an 1888 work titled The Rocks.)
After its authenticity was confirmed, Sunset at Montmajour was displayed at the Van Gogh Museum in 2013. To this day, it’s the first full-sized painting by the Dutch artist to be newly authenticated since 1928.
3. A FORGOTTEN JACKSON POLLOCK PAINTING
In December 2015, while helping an elderly neighbor in Sun City, Arizona prepare to move into a retirement home, a local man spotted a Los Angeles Lakers poster in the garage, signed by Kobe Bryant. They contacted Scottsdale-based J. Levine Auction & Appraisal to gauge its value, but the piece of sports memorabilia ended up being one of the least valuable artworks in the house: While investigating the garage, auction house employees stumbled upon a painting that appeared to be by Jackson Pollock, along with a cache of works by Color Field painter Kenneth Noland, American abstract artist Jules Olitski, and visual artist Cora Kelley Ward.
The homeowner had inherited the treasure trove of paintings from his half-sister, New York socialite Jenifer Gordon Cosgriff, who died in 1993. Private investigators hired to investigate the works determined that Cosgriff had been friends with Clement Greenberg, the mid-20th century modern art critic and essayist, and artist Hazel Guggenheim McKinley, the sister of socialite and arts philanthropist Peggy Guggenheim. Both of these art world figures were friends with the artists whose works were found in the garage.
Josh Levine, the owner and CEO of J. Levine Auction & Appraisal, estimates the value of the potential Pollock—which has suffered moisture, heat, and smoke damage—to be around $10 to $15 million (or even more if the painting is authenticated). But since the untitled painting is unsigned and undated (and Pollock, himself, died in 1956), proving that it's a mid-century masterpiece was no easy task.
Thanks to Levine, its provenance has been traced, and forensic scientists have also dated its materials back to the mid 20th century. (Levine says he's paid for these services out of pocket, totaling up to $50,000.) But these bona fides haven't assuaged the concerns of art dealers, who worry about forgeries and various legal issues.
"I'm convinced it's a Jackson Pollock, but nobody will attest that it's by Jackson Pollock," Levine told The Phoenix New Times in June. Hopefully for Levine, whoever buys the painting at auction won't mind. (For now, its sale has been postponed until all interested bidders have the requisite funds to purchase it.)
4. A LONG-LOST REMBRANDT PAINTING
A small, slightly damaged oil painting that was expected to sell for just $500 to $800 at auction ended up fetching millions after experts realized it was a long-lost painting by Rembrandt, the Dutch Old Master painter.
Created by Rembrandt when he was in his late teens, the 1624 or 1625 painting—called The Unconscious Patient (An Allegory of the Sense of Smell)—was one work in a series that the artist likely created to depict the five senses. (To this day, the artwork that represents Taste is still missing.) It portrays an unconscious young man who’s being revived with what appear to be smelling salts.
Despite being the product of a master artist, the canvas initially escaped notice. Not only was the 9-inch work encased in a Victorian frame, making it appear to be a 19th century Continental School painting, but its surface was flaking and its wooden backing had cracks. “The picture was remarkably unremarkable,” recalled John Nye, owner of Nye and Co. auction house in Bloomfield, New Jersey, according to Reuters. “It looked like a dark, discolored portrait of three people, one of whom is passed out.”
Furthermore, the work had also sat in a New Jersey basement for years. But after the homeowners died, their adult children hired Nye and Co. to comb the property for valuables. Nye paid the residence a personal visit, but the Rembrandt-in-disguise didn't stick out among offerings like old furniture, silver, and other artworks. And "at no point prior to the sale did anyone show any interest in the painting," the appraiser later said in a statement. "We had absolutely no inquiries, nor did it stir excitement at the preview.”
Once the painting—then dubbed Triple Portrait with Lady Fainting—finally hit the auction block, Paris art dealers immediately suspected that the work was an early Rembrandt, noticing its similarity to other paintings in the artist's five-sense series. The dealers ended up scoring the work for the bargain price of $870,000 (or just over $1 million, after factoring in the added sale premium). In turn, they sold it to Thomas Kaplan, a New York financier and Dutch Golden Age art collector, for a reported $3 to $4 million.
Conservationists later discovered Rembrandt’s initials on the painting, under a layer of varnish, proving that the painting was indeed his work. In 2016, the restored painting was showcased at Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Museum, along with other works loaned from Kaplan’s collection, including Rembrandt’s The Stone Operation (An Allegory of the Sense of Touch) and The Three Musicians (An Allegory of the Sense of Hearing).
5. A TREASURE TROVE OF ARTHUR PINAJIAN ARTWORKS
In 2007, two men who purchased a tiny, run-down cottage in Bellport, New York for around $300,000 ended up getting way more bang for their buck. Thomas Schultz and Larry Joseph, who simply intended to flip the home, were told they were also welcome to a stockpile of artworks stored in the home’s single-car garage. There sat thousands of paintings, drawings, and journals that were the handiwork of Arthur Pinajian, a reclusive Armenian-American artist and comic book creator.
The cottage had once belonged to Pinajian, who passed away in 1999 at the age of 85, and his sister, Armen, who supported him financially. The artist never achieved widespread fame during his lifetime, but his works of abstract expressionism steadily gained appreciation—and value—after his death. Today, he’s remembered for creating the first cross-dressing superhero, Madame Fatal, for Crack Comics, along with carefully rendered works of Abstract Expressionism. Some art experts now refer to him in the same breath as giants like Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock.
Bitter about his lack of success, Pinajian had reportedly told his relatives to dispose of his works after he died. However, his family ended up ignoring his orders, saving much of his output. There it remained in the garage for years, collecting dust, fungus, and bugs.
Schultz and Joseph—who paid an extra $2500 for Pinajian's collection—quickly realized they had something special on their hands: “We had no idea of the worth or artistic merit of any of this stuff; it was basically a big mess,” Schultz told The New York Times in 2007. “But we started to realize that we were staring at the life and work and passion of an artist who had been painting every day for more than 50 years. And we said to each other, ‘There’s no way we’re going to let this collection get thrown away.’”
The two considered turning the home into a museum dedicated to Pinajian’s life and career. Ultimately, the project never reached fruition, but Schultz still managed to cement the artist's legacy another way: by introducing his work to the renowned contemporary art scholar William Innes Homer, a relative of one of his acquaintances. In turn, an impressed Homer contacted the equally noted art historian Peter Hastings Falk, who also considered Pinajian's work to be visionary.
"If you look at the history of abstraction in America, certainly the headlines are given to [Jackson] Pollock and Franz Kline and [Willem] de Kooning and all of the stars of that period who are now ensconced in the pantheon of American art history," Falk said in a 2013 interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
"And it's long been thought that no one else could ever crack into that elite rank because, of course, everyone has been discovered and art historians already know everything," Falk said. "The really fun thing about this is here is the dean of American art historians who is just simply astonished—and I was, too. That's what makes this such an extraordinary story."
Falk—who would become the exhibitions director and chief curator of Pinajian’s estate—valued the artist’s entire collection at $30 million. Since then, galleries like Gallery 125 in Bellport, New York; Lawrence Fine Art in East Hampton, New York; and the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum in Woodstock, New York have all exhibited Pinajian's work, and several of his oil paintings have fetched as much as $87,000 when they were shown in New York City in 2013.
6. A HISTORIC PAINTING BY HENRY ARTHUR MCARDLE
A long-lost battle scene painted by Henry Arthur McArdle, a 19th-century Irish immigrant who went on to become an important Texas artist, was rediscovered in a seemingly unlikely place: a West Virginia attic.
McArdle is best known for his mural-sized painting depicting the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto, a pivotal battle in the Texas Revolution led by General Sam Houston. Painted in 1895, the work was later lent to the state of Texas—along with Dawn at the Alamo (1905), another large-scale painting—where it was hung in the Senate chamber of the Texas State Capitol. The two paintings still hang in the capitol to this day, along with four other McArdle originals.
Records reportedly show that McArdle had painted a smaller version of the painting in 1901, which some say was commissioned by Texas art patron J. T. DeShields. However, McArdle is said to have kept the work for himself after DeShields failed to pay the painting’s full price. The story gets a little dicier from there, but it’s believed that the painting was later passed down to family members who settled in West Virginia, home state of McArdle's second wife, Isophene Lacy Dunnington. Meanwhile, some experts thought the work had been destroyed in a house fire.
In 2010, McArdle’s descendent, Jon Buell, discovered the dirty painting in his grandmother’s attic, hidden between the rafters underneath a tarp. She claimed that the painting—which had sat in the attic since the 1930s—was worthless. (It was “just a working drawing,” she said, according to Fox Business.)
Knowing his matriarch was sitting on historic gold, Buell received permission to contact a Texas auction house. The small Battle of San Jacinto painting was found to be in good condition, albeit with a few small punctures. It ended up selling for $334,000 to a Texas buyer.