Taste Test


The first rule of thumb for art collecting is buy what you love. But what if you’re not so sure?

By Lorry Fleming
[M]y husband heaved a sigh and gazed longingly at the painting.

“Come on. You love this. You do.”

I sighed back at him. I wasn’t so sure. Twenty years ago, weird was more our thing than it is now, in mid-life.

“I don’t know,” I ventured, “it just might be too non–Pottery Barn.” “Pottery Barn” has become our buzzphrase when we look around our house and try to define the style we’re going for. It’s not quite Pottery Barn, but it’s no longer thrift-store chic either. And while Maine is home, our house is free from iconic landscapes, seaside cottage décor, or rustic camp comfort. Our weekend excursions to antique and junk shops occasionally yield modest, interesting treasures, which we work into our otherwise unremarkable furniture-scape.

Now a strange creature — more boy than girl, more adult than child — stared back at us from a wall in Cabot Mill Antiques, a seemingly endless labyrinth of curiosities in Brunswick. The child stood at a table wearing a blue jumper with a ruffled neckline, the kind you see in paintings hundreds of years old. It hung like a dress over matching trousers. The boy’s body was all odd angles, skewed by nonsensical proportions. His rosy cheeks and lips seemed at odds with his manly head.

The background was the color of muddy water, with a spotted dog — at least, I think it was a dog — jumping up, perhaps to reach whatever was in the child’s right hand. A coin purse? A dog treat? There were no hints. The table in the picture was bare.

What if an art historian walked into Cabot Mill Antiques, stopped short in front of the blue boy, and, recognizing it for a rare and priceless thing, shelled out the sticker price of $29.99 — then later sold it for enough money to put his kid (our kid!) through college?

The thing that matters most was nowhere to be found: there was no artist’s signature or mark. The canvas was old, judging from the spots of mildew and the raw wooden frame. On the back, along with other markings we couldn’t quite make out, there was a stamp that read “Boylston Street, Boston.”

My husband motioned to our friend John, who was busy browsing vintage pottery. A British-born artist from New York, John sells his own work for good money. His sensibilities are distinct, and his opinions, delivered in his English accent, are measured and thoughtful. He studied the painting quietly, then slowly shook his head. “I don’t think so. Ah, actually, I’m not . . . really . . . sure . . . what to think.”

“You don’t like it,” I said, as if that settled the matter. Then, to my husband, “John doesn’t like it.”

“Well,” John scratched his chin. “That’s really . . . something.”

“Let’s think on it,” I said. “I doubt someone is going to run in here and buy it in the next day or two.”

But what if I was wrong? What if an art historian walked into Cabot Mill Antiques, stopped short in front of the blue boy, and, recognizing it for a rare and priceless thing, shelled out the sticker price of $29.99 — then later sold it for enough money to put his kid (our kid!) through college?

Could we take that chance? We did.

A week later, the painting was still there, and my husband still pined for it. I told him to buy it. At worst, I said, if it doesn’t work at home, it would be great in his office — right alongside his “outsider art,” a piece entitled Elvis Eaten By Spiders.

The next day, my husband left on a business trip and I hung our new acquisition conspicously, so we could begin to “live with it.” Our 16-year old-son looked like he had sucked on a lemon when he first laid eyes on it. “You’re kidding, right?” His skateboarding buddies, coming in and out of the house, had a range of takes. “Weird and cool.” “What is it?” “Is that a boy or a girl?” “Is that a dog or a cat?”

Our friends’ reactions were similarly varied. “I vote no,” one said flatly. My husband emailed a photo to his old punk-rock bandmate, now living in Montana. “Burn it,” he replied. “Get your son to set it on fire and leap through it on his skateboard. Give it to a drooling toddler along with a box of sharpies. Just don’t ever let anyone see it again.”

On day five of “living with it,” I was eating a bowl of Kashi and staring at the painting when I noticed an odd thing. The man-child’s face appeared to have softened; his gaze was appreciative. “You get me,” he seemed to be saying.

I posted an image on Facebook.

“It looks like something from a Stephen King novel,” commented friend Claire.

“Well, the dog’s tail is obviously the paint brush that painted the three spots on the dog, and after that it just gets more and more brilliant. (Love it.),” offered Mark, an artist and professor.

“Obviously, the blue boy is from the artist’s ‘who hid my glasses?’ period,” joked Howard, an author, theater director, and rabble-rouser.

“Love!” posted Kimberly, yet another artist. “This is a fabulous folk art piece — it belongs over a Shaker table in a dining room!”

“It looks like a bad reproduction, like you see on Antiques Roadshow,” wrote yogi friend Susan, in what could have been construed as an uncharacteristically brusque tone.

But Susan’s take may have been closest to the truth, said another art professor friend. “I’m assuming it’s a copy of an Early American portrait of a child by an American portraitist,” he wrote in an email. “There were — and I’m really plumbing the depths of my memories from some course back in grad school 20 years ago — itinerant portrait painters in the US, largely self-taught, who’d go from town to town looking for commissions from all the local gentry — folks who wanted to emulate European elite cultural forms and who knew that Euro elites had portraits of themselves and their families. The painters were self-taught from black-and-white sources, so they weren’t really all that adept at figuring out how to, say, model flesh.”

He ended his email with this: “One other possibility, of course: it’s actually an authentic painting by an unknown Early American portrait painter, worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. In which case, you guys are now rich.”

So I’m going with that. For now, the blue boy hangs on our freshly painted Tangerine Tango wall (take that, Pottery Barn!), opposite my father-in-law’s fabulous painting of a yellow sardine tin wreathed in a swimming stream of little fish. He looks right at home.

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