Elizabeth Gibson found a painting in a mound of garbage on a Manhattan sidewalk. She later found it to be a high-prized painting named, "Tres Personajes," by Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo. It may fetch as much as $1 million at a Sotheby’s auction.
Elizabeth Gibson, 53, lives on the Upper West Side of New York City. She went out for her routine cup of coffee on a Saturday morning in 2003 and spotted a large painting poking out from one of the garbage bags left on the sidewalk on West 72nd Street for pickup. She kept walking and didn’t want to take the painting.
But when she returned from the coffee shop, she saw the painting again and had a change of mind. The painting appeared big and she didn’t want it to go to waste, even though it looked too big for her small apartment. The chipped silver frame looked cheap, but she decided to take it anyway and carried the four-foot wide painting back to her apartment and hung it on the living room wall.
If she had just left it there, she wouldn’t have know it to be a valuable painting, but she became curious and wanted to find more about it. She contacted art dealers, lawyers and friends and learned that Tamayo was one of the most important artists in Mexican history and the painting she had, "Tres Personajes" was a special one. So, she hid the painting in her closet.
She felt the painting to be more of a burden than a blessing. She watched a PBS television program about missing artworks called “Antique Roadshow” which featured the Tamayo painting. Sotheby’s expert, August Uribe, hosted this segment and explained that the painting was stolen in 1987 and is missing for almost 20 years. The painting’s original owners, an unidentified Houston couple, had purchased it in 1977 for $50,000. But later it went missing from a storage facility.
The FBI and the Houston city police investigated but couldn’t find it until it was later found by Gibson. She decided to give the painting back, so she called Uribe and said she had the painting. Uribe immediately recognized Tamayo’s painting and took it back to Sotheby’s headquarters.
Sotheby’s contacted the owner via the FBI, who was stunned to find this painting which was a gift from her dead husband. She felt it would traumatize her with memories so she decided to sell the painting instead.
Tamayo is a sought-after Latin American artist and one of his paintings “America (Mural)” fetched $2.9 million at Christie’s. Another painting “Trovador,” a jaunty guitarist, fetched $3 million. Sotheby’s expects “Tres Personajes” to go higher as well.
For Gibson, it was not a total loss -- she was given $15,000 by the owner as well as fees from Sotheby’s. She is planning to write a book about her experiences.
The person who dumped this painting in the trash must feel bad now. Before they throw out anything else, I think they should think twice about it.