Edward Williams’ 17th-century oil painting Wooden landscape with horseman and sheep watering was a prized possession of the late Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic, above ledt. It was bequeathed to the Archdiocese of Toronto after the cardinal’s death in 2011 and later sold at auction. Photo courtesy of Waddington’s Auctioneers and Appraisals

Cardinal Ambrozic's painting reveals art of the deal

By 
  • October 31, 2018

Former Toronto cardinal, Aloysius Ambrozic, wasn’t a big collector of art. 

But among his prized possessions was a 17th-century oil painting attributed to a well-known British landscape artist named Edward Williams. Ambrozic died in 2011. Recently, the painting which he bequeathed to the Archdiocese of Toronto was sold at an online art auction. 

But that’s just the end of the story ….

“When he passed away, we got a hold of this painting which was a gift to the cardinal,” said Nerissa Flores, development officer at the Archdiocese of Toronto. “Actually, we’re not really sure because we just found it among his things when he passed away. We were surprised to find it.”

Flores said the staff aren’t really sure how it came to the cardinal’s possession. When Ambrozic died, the painting, titled Wooden landscape with horseman and sheep watering, was found hanging on the wall of his condominium. The Ambrozic family decided not to take the painting and instead left it to the archdiocese as a donation.

With some of her own research, Flores learned that Williams was a prolific and well-known landscape artist during the Victorian era. Art was his family’s trade. He was surrounded with relatives who were painters and engravers. He, himself, started out making picture frames before he began to develop his own style of painting moonlit English countrysides. His six sons also became well-known landscape painters.

Once in a blue moon, a piece of art comes across Flores’ desk and it is always a challenge deciding what to do with it. Often, the pieces sit in a corner of her office until the Development Office can find the right resources to appraise the art. 

“Our office doesn’t normally have the capacity to go through the art appraisal process,” said Flores. “The ones that we had, it took more than a year before it was sold. You have to find the right appraisers. You have to put it up for auction…. Sometimes, the piece would have to be put up for auction two or three times before it gets sold.”

The art appraisal process can take months and even years to complete. Flores sometimes contacts several art appraisal firms to find someone who specializes in the particular art. The appraiser must examine the piece, research the artist and conduct market research to determine the demand of the painting.

As a general rule, it is more prudent for the office to consign these pieces of art rather than keep it in the diocesan archives. The priority, she said, has to be in maximizing resources that go back to the parishes. 

When the Williams oil painting was first appraised in 2011, it was quoted to have been worth up to £3,000 (about $4,800 CAD in 2011). But when it was brought to the Waddington’s auction house last year, it was appraised again by Susan Robertson who estimated the value to be closer to $800 to $1,200. 

It sold for $960 along with two other paintings in a Sept. 20 online auction. A similar Williams painting was sold for $1,200 at the same auction.

“The market values change a lot so old appraisals of any artworks from 30 or 20 or even 10 years ago today are considered not a clear indication of the market,” said Robertson, art appraiser for Waddington’s auction house. “Greek paintings were very high in the market and then five years ago, Greece was claiming very poor economic conditions so the market kind of dropped out for some Greek artists that used to be selling for $20,000 and are now not selling for $5,000. We’re constantly having to keep track of the current markets.”

At the moment, Robertson said the market is not motivated towards 17th-century British countryside landscapes. 

Another contributing factor was that Williams was known to not sign his name on his paintings. In the same way, the cardinal’s painting had no sign of an artist’s signature. The attribution to Williams came from a small name plate placed on the frame by a known restorer, Frank Worrall, in the early 1900s.

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