The Arts

Rare artwork discovered at historical society

A storied artist’s rare artwork, valued at more than $5,000, was nearly thrown into a value bin in Wading River.

In an effort to keep its mission going, Wading River Historical Society holds a spring Art Fair fundraiser during the annual Duck Pond Day festival — a longstanding Wading River tradition.

In preparation for this year’s event on Sunday, June 9, historical society vice president Jane Alcorn was sorting through a large collection of donated art pieces from the past year. She came across many multiples and generic pieces — but one painting in a pile of original artwork immediately caught her eye.

“It looked different from the others — it was obviously old and it looked more finely done,” Ms. Alcorn said. “I thought, ‘This is not just your run-of-the-mill painting.’ ”

She went home, looked up the artist’s name and discovered she had her hands on an authentic painting by renowned Danish-American maritime artist Antonio Jacobsen of the clipper ship Red Jacket.

Through further research, she learned that some of his paintings had sold for prices into the “thousands of dollars.” One even hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

Ms. Alcorn immediately sought out professional advice and called Shawna Brickley, a Shoreham-based appraiser who works for Rob Zanger Rare Books and Art, based in Middletown, N.Y. For nearly 25 years, Ms. Brickley has worked with a number of auction houses and specializes in handling artwork by the “old masters” — European paintings pre-1800s — and Modern works. 

“This kind of thing is very common; people come to [appraisers] often with things they feel are valuable because they’ve been passed down to family or they’ve been told by a loved one who has passed away that the particular object is valuable,” Ms. Brickley said. “Sometimes, they have a feeling very much the way Jane did that something really sort of stands out as having some potential to be a valuable object — and in this case, she was absolutely right.” 

According to Ms. Brickley, Mr. Jacobsen immigrated from Copenhagen to New York in the late 1800s. He settled in West Hoboken, N.J., right across the Hudson River from New York Harbor, and began painting ships during the time when commercial shipping was transitioning from wind to steam power. 

Mr. Jacobsen received a commission to paint an entire fleet of important shipping lines, including vessels produced for the White Star Line — the company that commissioned the Titanic. The artist was just starting out when he painted the Red Jacket. 

The Red Jacket was built in 1853 in Rockland, Maine, and towed to New York, where it set sail for Liverpool, England, setting a record for the fastest ever transatlantic crossing for a sailing vessel. 

The story gets even more interesting, as Jacobsen painted the ship in 1907 — decades after the Red Jacket was shipwrecked. The year of the painting is when the wreckage completely disappeared into the sea, Ms. Brickley said.

“[It’s a ship that’s] been painted and memorialized many, many times, but this particular painting is really special,” Ms. Brickley said. “It appears that he may have painted this particular painting in homage to that.” 

Before putting a price tag on a valuable item, there are several factors an appraiser like Ms. Brickley has to look out for. 

With this piece, one of the things that stood out to her was the painting being in its original frame from 1907, which is unusual as artwork from this period was typically reframed, Ms. Brickley said. 

Mr. Jacobsen was also known for painting on board and by first glance, and the texture of the brush strokes and the real paint on the canvas is a clear indicator of its authenticity, she said. She also learned through her research that Mr. Jacobsen had also painted the Red Jacket ship in 1871, when it was on its way from New York to Boston.

With all of these bits of information put together and the condition of the piece in mind, Ms. Brickley estimated the value of the painting at under $10,000 — specifically in the $5,000 to $7,000 range.

“This is a really, really fine piece of artwork that doesn’t belong in a yard sale,” Ms. Brickley said. “Lots of these things are lost to history because people don’t recognize what they are — it was rediscovered and as an object it can be appreciated and learned about, that to me is really so wonderful.” 

Ms. Brickley’s advice to those cleaning out a loved one’s estate is to call a local appraiser who can come and help. 

“It really pays to find out because it doesn’t always jump out at you,” Ms. Brickley said. “A lot of what goes into establishing an estimate or an historical context for a piece of artwork is learning the history of it and finding out exactly what it is that you have.”

Ms. Alcorn said the historical society trustees voted to sell the painting through a gallery that Ms. Brickley works for — unless offered an ideal price from a private buyer sooner. The money will be used to benefit the organization’s maintenance projects and its programs. 

For those who want to get a glimpse, the painting will be on display during Duck Pond Day at Wading River Historical Society on North Country Road. 

Ms. Alcorn added that if this “cautionary tale” teaches anyone anything, it’s to trust your gut and before throwing any heirlooms away, maybe give it a second thought.

“We’ve gotten so many paintings over the years that I have no idea where it came from,” Ms. Alcorn said. “People have to be careful — don’t just toss it.”