Winslow Homer's Ghost Speaks Winslow Homer: His Prophecy & His Lament
How an Unsuspecting Collector Came To Believe a Found Cache of Previously Unknown Watercolors Were Painted by the Great American Artist
When the contents of multiple New England estate liquidations were shipped south for sale, a North Florida collector, over the course of five days, happened upon seven framed sheets of unsigned late 19th-Century American watercolors. Here is his story:
Watching the Harbor Sitting Boy Youth Leaning On Chair (detail) How Many Eggs (detail)
I was impressed initially by their from-life quality and gradually realized they possessed many essential features and mannerisms characteristic of the hand of Winslow Homer. To see why, consider the group of four watercolor drawings above: two works are acknowledged as prime Winslow Homers, and two are selected from the found cache. Each subject is barefoot, and the two on the right are wearing almost identical clothing. The well-tempered palette is certifiably Homer's – the two found works executed in studio light while the two known works are achieved en plein air. Two of the found sheets have work on the reverse (a sign they likely were never intended for exhibition), and four sheets bear pencil notations. "Jan 1 / '81" is the most relevant, being a pivotal date in the artist's career – hallmarking the final watercolor of his first great watercolor period and prelude to his fresh start. Homer sailed for England on the Ides of March, 1881.

Young Woman With Mantilla Shoreline Reflection
These oval images occupy the front and back of one sheet

The found cache comprises nine works: (dimensions are in inches)
Sitting Boy 5.25x5.5 A portrait of a boy sitting cross-legged on the floor, quite possibly the artist's eldest nephew Arthur Patch Homer (bears penciled "Sept 1" on reverse)
Youth Leaning on Chair 11x15 A figure study of a Huck Finn-like youth leaning against a studio chair
Fan-shaped Landscape 15x11 A fan-shaped landscape with figures and cows, on reverse of above
Young Woman with Mantilla 7x9 A detailed portrait of a young woman draped in a black lace mantilla. She is probably Gloucester-Portuguese and is arguably Homer's historically-elusive "Mystery Woman"
Shoreline Reflection 7x9 On the reverse of the above, a water study with reflections
Unadorned Young Woman 4x4.5 One of a pair of portraits of young women (sisters?), one of whom looks to be the young woman wearing the mantilla (penciled "A[??]" lower right)
Young Woman with Garnet Earrings 4x4.5 One of a pair of portraits of young women (sisters?), one of whom looks to be the young woman wearing the mantilla (penciled "Carmen" lower right)
Mask with Books 6x8 A rare still-life featuring a classical mask propped against stacked books
Mannequin 10x14 An intentionally enigmatic study of a one-legged mannequin (this one bears the penciled "Jan 1 / '81" notation)

How do we determine authenticity of Homer's authorship?
In this case, there are three elements that come into play:
  1. Facture: the known way or manner that an artist creates a work of art. This is determined by careful study and comparison to the known catalogue and canon by an enlightened individual or group. These works adhere to that standard.
  2. Proof of facture: scientifically confirmable evidence via state of the art forensic examination and high-resolution photography. These works have passed such examinations of their materials: paper, pigment, graphite, etc.
  3. Provenance (the only variable here): the known history of a work of art from the time it leaves the artist's hands to the time of its acknowledgement as part of an artist's record of works, his catalogue raisonnée. (Omission from a catalogue raisonnée means a work is disputed - or, in the worst case, is considered a forgery.) During the period 1878-1880, in preparation for his sojourn to England, Homer disposed of hundreds of works on paper: studies, sketches, drawings, and a few minor oils. The vast majority of these publically-auctioned works were never recorded, few had been exhibited, and who knows how many were not signed. We know that Homer's signature was never a prerequisite for completion, exhibition, or sale. Unsigned Homer watercolors, some quite famous, are well documented: Gordon Henricks's 1979 catalogue of Homer works in public collections lists 22, and the new Homer Record of Works (catalogue raisonné) lists over a dozen more. Such recognition validates the belief that Winslow Homer's distinctive watercolor brush is self-declarative – a signature in and of itself.
    Postcard showing Mr. Winslow's tent Given that many of Homer's earlier works lack watertight provenance, it is fortunate in this case to have an obvious association with Homer or the Homer family. I also retrieved from the same source as the seven framed sheets a group of amateur photographic postalcards postmarked Maine, 1907, with annotations:
    • "Mr & Mrs Homer, out boating" (Worthley Pond, E. Peru, Maine)
    • "Mr Homers cottage & Mr Winslows tent" [sic]
    • Others have references to the "Savage" and "Libby" families. Both Winslow's father and older brother were named Charles Savage Homer, and today's "Prout's Neck" was previously known as "Libby's Neck." Homer was acquainted with and employed at least two members of the Libby family.
The Winslow Homer Record of Works preface states, "A catalogue raisonné is never finished – no matter how many years have been devoted to the search for an artist's every surviving work, it is always possible that something new will be revealed." Given the found works' inimitable facture, their remarkable original period vibrancy, and the intriguing association provenance, it is strange that leading members of the Homer Record/catalog raisonné who were contacted were unwilling to invest time in research, and all were tentative about making definitive judgments. From photographs provided, the Director stated, "It is my opinion ... that none of these watercolors shows a relationship to the acknowledged work of Winslow Homer either in sylistic characteristics or quality of execution. They seem likely to have been the work of a fairly advanced student..." One senior licensee of the catalogue simply precluded, "We have already seen everything by the artist" and "The Homer catalogue is closed," remarks which are clearly at odds with the preface of the catalogue. I feel their responses did not meet an important standard in the art world:
Artnet News, February 1, 2013, "Art Law on Protection for Art Experts"
"Where the expert is giving a private opinion, that is, one not published for the public ... in order to receive First Amdendment protections for their opinions, experts should make a reasonably full recitation of the facts upon which their opinion is based."
Clearly, the authenticity of these works has never been seriously considered, let alone disproven. In the face of compelling evidence of their authorship, the leading "authorities", those with the power to validate or deny, refused to give them serious consideration. Their reasons are not apparent. That turning away leaves their value, both monetary, and that of becoming a part of the accepted legacy of the great Winslow Homer, in an ambiguous and untenable state.

What makes a work of art valuable?
"Value" exists on a continuum between objective and subjective.
Objective value lies in the collective judgment of an artistic community and relies first, on the reputation of the artist, and second, the closely related demand for their work. Art is inherently a limited resource, with the consequence that demand can drive the price of the work - as an object. Much effort is expended in the commercial art marketplace to determine whether a work has properties which enhance its objective value, the prime one being whether it is actually the work of the artist in question.
At the other end of the spectrum is subjective value. A widely-shared personal appreciation of a work is a factor in the kind of objective valuation discussed above. But any given individual will have a personal, subjective response to any given work, regardless of whether it is seen to be "authentic" or appealing to the arbiters of objective value.
It's also possible for someone to perceive value in a work which they believe to have been overlooked; this would be true, for instance, of someone who obtains a work which has not yet been recognized as having been produced by an objectively-valuable artist.

Have we really seen everything by Winslow Homer?
I have good reason to believe that some small number of still-unrecognized Homer works exist, their provenance lost, awaiting recovery and validation. Will they all meet the same dismissive fate by the arbiters of value: given no fair evaluation, rejected out of hand? How do those arbiters imagine Winslow Homer would view their actions? One wonders.
The majority of works Homer produced were created to generate income. That does not imply they had no personal meaning for him. Winslow Homer's stature emanates from putting himself into every work, every study, no matter how slight. To Winslow Homer his art was an all or nothing proposition. As a result, these found works have an elegance and refinement that belies one's first impression of them, revealing itself though continued viewing. It was Homer's pleasure to reward the observant viewer.
I ask you: what master forger capable of infusing Homer's hallmark facture to such a degree would not then forge Homer's signature – or at least his initials – to further enhance the fraud? And what unknown student with such ability would fail to claim this artistic prowess?
In short, I believe this discovery affirms Winslow Homer's reported prescient end-of-life lament, his warning that any attempt to catalogue his life's work would most likely fall short of his complete approval. These unsigned "private studies" were never meant for sale or exhibition and were most likely gifted to a certain individual. The connection to Homer and their significance were lost and have remained so through several generations, to this day. Only a twist of fate – combined with my experience and intuition – has brought them to light. Do they now, a hundred and ten years after the artist's death, ironically fulfill a revenant Winslow Homer's declaration: his prophecy, "You will see, in the future, I shall live by my watercolors."

This Winslow Homer archival collection is offered for sale as a single unit. Professional valuation ranges upward of $12-15 million (US), a once-in-a-lifetime Winslow Homer watercolor discovery acquisition opportunity. All inquiries are welcome.

Fan-shaped Landscape

Read the collector's detailed Notes and Observations for each found work =>


*New* Some thoughts on Winslow Homer's Mystery Woman

Resources
  * Winslow Homer on Wikipedia.
  * Another found Winslow Homer painting: Watching the Shot.