It looked like the kind of painting you’d see on the wall of your local library, or maybe even your dentist’s office. The piece was unassuming, naturalistic; some might have described it as “ordinary.” Even Rose, the woman who owned the painting, thought it was just something that looked good on her grandmother’s wall. But when she brought it to Antiques Roadshow, Rose confronted a hidden truth that made her question everything she knew about her grandmother, her family’s past, and her own future.
Though most families pass down vintage pearls or delicate furniture, Rose’s ancestors passed down this artwork. That may sound a little odd, but according to Rose, the print of a Native American tribe leisurely walking down a mountainside “always hung right above [my grandmother’s] bed.” For years, she barely paid any attention to it.
Why did Rose’s grandmother attach such sentimental value to what seemed to be a reproduction of an ordinary painting? Even Rose wasn’t sure where the piece came from, or why her grandmother loved it so much, but she was able to come up with a theory — albeit an unusual one.
“Her dad, I’m guessing, would’ve given it to her after she spent the summer at a dude ranch when she was 19,” Rose suggested. Based on family history, she guessed that her grandma got the print sometime in the 1940s. There was a date on the painting as well, but Rose was hesitant to investigate.
She wasn’t even sure if the work was indeed a painting or merely a reproduction. Rose couldn’t have known it then, but the difference in value of a painting compared to a print could have been thousands of dollars — perhaps more. Rose had always assumed it wasn’t an original, but a nerve-racking incident planted a seed of doubt in her mind.
“When I got [the print] there was a mosquito underneath the glass,” Rose told Meredith Hilferty, an Antiques Roadshow master appraiser. “So I took it out to the front yard and I opened it up.” Face to face with the print for the first time, Rose couldn’t help but notice something odd about the piece of art.
In order to honor her grandmother’s wishes, Rose had intended on bringing the print with her to college. But as soon as she brushed away the mosquito, something else caught her eye. “It scared me a little,” she told Hilferty. “I closed it back up immediately.”
She noticed small, deliberate brushstrokes — and they looked genuine. With a jolt, Rose realized that the print wasn’t going with her to college. Instead, it had to go to an Antiques Roadshow appraiser. She needed to know once and for all whether what she’d seen was authentic or not. In the meantime, Rose did some research on her own.
“It looked like it might be real,” Rose told Hilferty of the print/painting. With this in mind, Rose remembered a key piece of information: her family had actually gotten the artwork appraised before — twice, in fact. But each time, they had walked away with a decidedly disappointing number.
“In 1998 it was appraised as a print at $200,” Rose recalled. “In 2004, it was appraised at $250.” All her life, Rose had assumed that her grandmother’s favorite work of art was equal to the price of a cheap suit. But after she saw the print — or painting? — up close, she knew she had to do some googling.
It helped that the artist had written the date and his own name on the back of the painting: “1892, H.F. Farny.” When she researched the name and date, Rose was greeted by a pleasant surprise. Farny had been met with quite a bit of acclaim in the latter half of the 1800s, and his admirers included the likes of Theodore Roosevelt.
“Farny, the nation owes you a great debt,” Roosevelt once said to the painter. “It does not realize it now but it will someday. You are preserving for future generations phases of American history that are rapidly passing away.” As she continued her research, Rose couldn’t help but wonder if she was a part of that “future generation.”
The piece had already been valuable to Rose for sentimental reasons, but now she had potentially thousands of reasons to get the painting appraised. She couldn’t get the artwork’s rich history out of her mind, either. Farny, on a quest for inspiration, had found it in the American Midwest.
The French-born artist once said, “The plains, the buttes, the whole country, and its people are fuller of material for the artist than any country in Europe.” Farny was fascinated by Native Americans, so much so that he followed them in their travels. “He has associations with the Sioux tribe,” Rose excitedly told Hilferty.
And that wasn’t all Rose discovered about Farny’s passion for Native American life. “They actually ‘adopted’ him,” she said. Rose pointed out the symbol, a small dot, under Farny’s name. “They gave him a cipher, ‘Longboots.’” That was the end of Rose’s knowledge, but thankfully, Hilferty was able to fill in some of the blanks.
First off, Hilferty confirmed Rose’s suspicion that the piece was, in fact, an original painting. “This piece is really interesting,” she began. “It’s a dense group of figures, which is very desirable in [Farny’s] work.” Already, things were looking good for Rose and her grandmother’s prized possession, but Hilferty wasn’t done listing the piece’s winning qualities.
“1890 is around when we start seeing some of his very best paintings,” she said. The fact that this artwork was inscribed with the date “1892” meant that Rose had a special piece of history in her hands. The best part of the art, according to Hilferty, was the unique way in which Farny depicted Native American life.
“He represented the Native Americans in a very peaceful, tranquil way,” Hilferty noted. “He didn’t ever really bring conflict into his work as some of the other artists from that time did.” This fact alone gives the painting a newfound layer of meaning. It was a symbol of peace, not of hostility, which was rare for that time period.
History aside, of course, Rose still had her ultimate question: how much was the painting worth? “If we were going to put this in an auction today, I would suggest an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000.” The shock on Rose’s face when she heard the staggering estimate was priceless!
Rose and her family had believed that the painting — which they originally thought was a mere replica! — was worth no more than $250. The revelation that it was in fact worth a small fortune left Rose speechless. Fighting tears, she asked Hilferty, “So I can’t hang it up?”
Anyone in such an unusual situation would have had similar concerns. Surely such a valuable piece of art shouldn’t go back to hanging on the wall above Rose’s bed, right? “So, I’ll keep it away from my dog,” Rose joked. But she was also weighing a big decision.
With hundreds of thousands of dollars hanging in the balance, Rose had a choice to make: keep the painting in the family as her grandmother intended, or sell it for a potentially life-changing sum of money? Nobody could figure out the right answer but her.
Rose said she needed more time to consider what to do with her precious heirloom, but we’d be surprised if she didn’t at least look into selling the valuable painting. The Antiques Roadshow team are usually experts at spotting diamonds in the rough, and they certainly didn’t miss the mark with Rose. However, they don’t always have a perfect track record.
After recovering from a very public and embarrassing error valuing an old encrypted box, Antiques Roadshow made sure to send in one of their most qualified assessors, Lark Mason, to film the next episode of the show. When it comes to Chinese antiquities, Mason is one of the best. Yet, even he was in no way prepared for the whirlwind of emotion the day had in store.
After a 24-year tenure with the prestigious Sotheby’s New York auction house, Mason eventually reached the title of senior vice president of Chinese Art. Not to mention that he is an esteemed expert, teacher, and lecturer. He even went on to found his own auctioning company, all the while spending 22 years blowing the minds of eager trinket carriers on Antiques Roadshow.
Needless to say, Mason walked into filming feeling confident. But what you might not know while watching the show, is that all those appraisers aren’t getting paid. They volunteer for the job and cover their own travel expenses as well, a testament to their love of priceless antiques.
On the flip side, getting facetime with an appraiser, let alone making the final on-air cut is a major stroke of luck. The show visits just six cities each year, which means thousands of people line up to get their chance.
Honestly, for an appraiser, it’s not that big of a deal when a person waltzes in unknowingly carrying a boatload of money. However, there was something different about the item that Mason clocked the woman toting that day.
See, every episode follows a familiar rhythm: First, the person excitedly explains how the object they brought for evaluation came into their possession. Then the appraiser expands on the history of the item. Finally, they drop the juicy info — what it’s actually worth.
That fateful day in 2002, it was pretty obvious from the initial establishing shot that Lark Mason was bursting to get to his part of the interaction. Suspense building, the woman explained how the marble lion statue on the table came into her care.
It was a family heirloom, passed down to her by her mother. They’d first noticed the intimidating artwork on a trip to China decades before, but she wasn’t exactly sure when. Though, she thought she might have an idea about the object’s past.
A friend who had a better understanding of Chinese art had looked over the statue and guessed that it traced back to the Ming Dynasty. That would mean the lion was a relic from between the 14th and 17th centuries.
When Masson started his regular spiel, he was overcome with emotion. His voice broke and he had to take a moment to compose himself to get out the right words. “Okay. Well, I’ll start out by saying when this came up, I could barely…” he choked up.
Clearly, the item on the table was causing this unusual break in composure. Mason explained that the lion didn’t belong to the Ming Dynasty after all. What they had before them was something truly exceptional.
“It’s fantastic. This is truly… Sorry, I’m a little worked up. This is among the finest examples of Chinese art that we have seen on the Roadshow. The carving is beautiful. The workmanship is stunning,” Mason said, adding to the tangible hype.
Mason pointed out the incredible detail, specifically the carved muscles rippling in the lion’s back. The marble itself, too, was of a higher standard, the best kind money could buy. But he did need to correct one part of the statue’s owner’s story.
Getting corrected isn’t that annoying when the truth raises the stakes: He told her that the statue was older than she’d thought. “This dates from the golden period of Chinese art, which is called the Tang Dynasty, between the sixth century and the ninth century,” the expert explained.
Mason said he’d seen other similar statues come to auction, but those were usually much smaller and less grand than the one she brought in. In fact, he let it slip that they were dealing with an object of museum quality.
There were several clues that tipped Mason off to the statue’s extreme age — primarily the rough chisel marks on the bottom and lack of signature. The texture and color of that high-quality marble also confirmed his suspicions.
At long last, Mason spilled the detail that everyone was waiting for — how much was this thing worth? Well, he conservatively guessed the statue could easily fetch between $120,000 and $180,000! The good news didn’t end there.
Mason continued that the insurance estimation for this fearsome lion would be even higher, between $150,000 to $250,000. For years, she unknowingly had a small fortune collecting dust.
The statue’s owner thanked Mason for the information that no doubt changed her life forever. But she actually decided to keep the statue in the family. Hey loyalty to her family heirloom actually inspired another family to take a new approach to finding treasure.