SOMESVILLE – Auctioneer Jerry Miller had cleaned out the good furniture from a large Southwest Harbor estate, whose contents were being put up for auction.
He and his assistant had moved on to the garage, where they were hauling out metal file cabinets and other items. Behind a bunch of stuff was a cardboard mirror picture crate. Miller opened it up and pulled out an Impressionist oil painting.
“The guy I was working with said, ‘Ugh,’” Miller recalls. “And I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ There it was. W.H. Johnson.”
William H. Johnson was an African American artist of international renown. According to The William H. Johnson Foundation for the Arts, he was one of the great American artists of the 20th century, known for his Scandinavian landscapes and his scenes of African American life. He left his native South Carolina in 1918 to study at the National Academy of Design in New York. He traveled to Europe. Part of that time was spent in France, in the village of Cagnes-sur-Mer, the final address of Renoir, and a residence, in the 1920s, for other American literary and art figures of renown.
Johnson remained in Europe for 12 years, during which time he created hundreds of works, exhibited widely and established a strong reputation, according to the foundation.
It’s not clear how the valuable painting landed in the back of a Southwest Harbor garage, Miller says.
What’s known is that the family was very wealthy in the 1920s.
“So I suspect that her parents were early art buffs and then sort of put this away and everybody forgot about it,” Miller says.
Everything else coming out of the estate was furniture.
“This painting was just abandoned or lost,” he says. “That’s why we do this. I found another one, a while ago, that someone was going to consign to a church sale. The artist was Jane Peterson, an American impressionist. It was in a closet. The woman said, ‘I’m going to give it to the church sale.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think so.’”
Finding rare items is a common part of Miller’s business.
“That’s what’s exciting,” he says.
In the past, Johnson’s paintings have sold at prices ranging from $20,000 to $70,000.
The style and quality of the painting, and the theme, were a giveaway that the painting was probably valuable, he says.
“Twenty-some years of looking at art, whether at auction or while doing an appraisal, gives one an eye for good work,” he says. “I have spent many hours looking at art online and in the standard references. While I probably would not qualify for a degree in art history, I can recognize well-done work.”
As it happens, the U.S. Postal Service issued the commemorative William H. Johnson Forever Stamp just this past April. The stamp showcases Johnson’s still life painting Flowers, dated 1939–1940.
The Postal Service’s news release says, “A new generation has discovered Johnson’s work and today he’s regarded as a major figure in 20th century art.”
Many householders do not recognize the value of their possessions, he says.
“You see horrible stuff. I’ve been in a lot of dumpsters. I’ll get there and they’ll say, ‘Oh, we helped by throwing out all the junk,’” he says.
Island residents tend to burn their “trash,” he says.
“All those sea captains’ logs, they’re all gone,” he says of documents that can be worth money or at least historically interesting.
Johnson’s work will go to auction on Saturday, July 21, noon, at The Neighborhood House in Northeast Harbor. There will be a preview from 10 a.m. to noon, or by arrangement. Many other items will be up for auction as well. Visit jerrymillerandco.com for more information.