What are the odds that an important painting last seen in 1928 will wind up as a prop in a 1999 movie, be shown in the background in scene after scene and come at the exact time as an art historian is watching?
Forget that. It’s enough to say things like this happen only in movies — but it did happen in real life.
Five years ago, Gergely Barki, a researcher at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest, was spending Christmas at home with his young daughter watching Stuart Little when he noticed something odd about the painting hanging over the mantelpiece.
It bore a striking resemblance to a work by Hungarian artist Robert Bereny, which had last been seen in public in 1928.
Barki recognized the painting — Sleeping Lady With Black Vase — from a black-and-white photograph taken of the work during its 1928 exhibition, according to Vanity Fair.
“It was not just on screen for one second but in several scenes of the film, so I knew I was not dreaming. It was a very happy moment,” said Barki who had no idea how it ended up as set dressing the children’s movie.
Barki, who is writing a biography of Bereny, went into full detective mode.
“I started to write e-mails to everyone involved in the film,” he told the New York Post. He sent letters to the film’s creators, Sony Pictures and Columbia Pictures, finally receiving a reply from the film’s former set designer two years later.
The film assistant, whose name has not been reported, had picked up the painting in a Pasadena, Ca., antique shop for US$500.
Unaware of its origin or value, she used the work to decorate the apartment of the fictional family.
“I had a chance to visit her and see the painting and tell her everything about the painter,” said Barki. “She was very surprised.”
Bereny was a member of the Hungarian avant-garde collective known as The Eight, who helped introduce Cubism and Expressionism to Hungary.
While his work is highly regarded, Bereny is perhaps better known for his love affairs — he is rumored to have dallied with actress Marlene Dietrich in Berlin in 1920 and, according to Barki, may have had a fling with Anastasia, the mysterious daughter of Nicholas II, Russia’s last tsar.
Thanks to Barki’s good work and eagle eye, the painting was repatriated. The anonymous film assistant sold the painting to an art collector, who returned the painting to Hungary.
Last week, the painting was sold for 229,500 euros (US$285,700) at an auction in Budapest.
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