Christ Crucified with the Virgin, Saint John and Mary Magdalene by Sir Anthony Van Dyck. A painting similar to this proved to be a fake.

The million-dollar conversation

By  Quentin Schesnuik, Catholic Register Special
  • November 2, 2013

In my job with the archdiocese of Toronto, I meet a lot of people and have a lot of conversations. Some are more interesting than others. Below is one with a man I’ll call Gunter that I’ll not soon forget.

“I have a painting that is worth over a million dollars and I want to give it to you,” the voice on the other end of the phone said.

“Where is the painting now?”

“Hanging in my living room.”

Normally, I am highly skeptical of “million-dollar-paintings-hanging-in-my-living-room” phone calls, but before I could stop myself I said I would drive to his home to see it.

I hung up the phone and slapped myself on the forehead. I decided to look upon this as penance. Almost 90 minutes later, I arrived at the donor’s home, an upscale townhouse. I rang the bell.

A man with a German accent answered. “I am Gunter. Please come in.”

It was a nice place and art was everywhere. Gunter took me into the living room and said, “I already took the painting down so you can get a good look at it.”

The painting was of our Lord. Crucified. On the Cross and at the moment of His death.

I could tell right away the painting was very old. The paint itself had thin cracking all over it. The frame was big and beautiful and gilded in gold with hand-carved clam shells in each corner. Turning the painting over, I noticed worm holes on the back of the frame. All the nails holding it together appeared to be handmade. It had all the right elements. It was hundreds of years old.

I took out my camera and started taking pictures. “The first step,” I began, “is to get an appraiser to take a look. If things still look promising, I would recommend a full appraisal to determine value. After that, we can talk about next steps. We shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves. Do you have any documentation of ownership?” I asked.

Gunter shook his head.

“How did it come into your possession?” I asked.

“I lent money against it.”

I paused.

Sensing my hesitation, Gunter explained, “I used to own a lending company. The previous owner left this in my possession after borrowing a large sum against it. He never repaid the loan. I’ve had the painting for close to 30 years. He told me it was painted by Anthony van Dyck and it was worth a million dollars.”

I found out later that Anthony van Dyck was a painter who died in 1641. His paintings hang in national galleries all over the world.

“Can you bring the painting to my office?” I asked.

Gunter nodded and then looked back at the painting with some sadness.

“This painting has been with me for 30 years,” he said. “I have gotten so used to seeing it every day. But now that you are here and the possibility of parting with it is becoming real… I don’t know. It feels strange. I find myself not wanting to part with it. And I am not even a Christian.”

After leaving Gunter’s home I called Annie, an art expert our office uses from time to time, and gave her the details.

“Ohhhh… I love stories like this!” Annie gushed. “See you tomorrow!”

The next day Annie and I were alone, sitting at my desk and looking at the painting. Annie had an expression like she just eaten a bad grape.

“If it’s a van Dyck, I’ll eat my shirt,” she said.

Annie leaned forward, lifted up her glasses and squinted.

“What gives it away are the legs. They are too smoothly painted. And look at the garment around His waist. It is too simple.

Anthony van Dyck was a master, especially in the treatment of cloth.”

Annie waved her hand back and forth, as if listening to music.

“Van Dyck’s cloth seems to move… you can see every ripple,” she said.

She looked back down. “But what is painted here is not alive… it seems to be ‘just there.’ ”

I saw right away what Annie was referring to. No matter how much I wanted it to be a van Dyck, she was right. It wasn’t.

Annie said, “I think this painting was done by someone who was studying under van Dyck. Perhaps an apprentice or admirer of his. It is in the School of van Dyck, so to speak.”

“Do you still think it is an important piece?” I asked.

“Absolutely.”

“Do you think we should do an appraisal?”

“Definitely.”

About a week later, the full appraisal came back. I closed my office door and opened the e-mail with excitement, looking for the all-important sentence on the second page that gives the market value.

“In summary and on the basis of research and analysis, it is my opinion that the fair market value of the subject property as of the effective date is: $2,500.”

What followed next was my dismay.

“The frame has to be worth more than that!” I thought. “It is hand crafted and gilded in gold. A framing expert told me it was one of the finest he had ever seen.”

But the appraisal was right. It was based on similar paintings sold in auction over the past few years.

And herein lies the cold irony. A beautiful centuries-old painting of our Lord is worth $2,500 but an Action Comics # 1 — the first appearance of Superman published in 1938 that originally cost only 10 cents — sold recently in auction for $2.16 million.

I called Gunter to give him the bad news. I had e-mailed him the appraisal, thinking it was best he saw it for himself.

Gunter sighed. “It is a professional appraisal and appears in order.”

“Yes,” I replied. “Do you still want to proceed with the donation?”

“To be honest, I am somewhat relieved,” Gunter replied. “I am looking forward to putting Him back up on my wall. I have missed Him.”

“Perhaps that was the point of the exercise,” I replied.

“Thank you for your assistance,” Gunter said.

“It was my pleasure.”

(Schesnuik is Manager of Planned Giving and Personal Gifts, Archdiocese of Toronto. To discuss a legacy gift, call 416-934-3400, ext. 561.)

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