Tom Ray - Raider of the lost art, part 2
By Judith Pannebaker
Lakehills entrepreneur and art enthusiast Tom Ray first became involved in a challenge to authenticate a “lost and unknown Old Master oil painting” in 2005. The painting was purportedly by the Dutch artist Frans Hals, a contemporary of Rembrandt. “Life,” as Ray likes to say, “is stranger than fiction."
‘Buying junk & selling treasures’
He was asked to head up the project because of his expertise in buying and selling a variety of valuables, such as rare stamps, maps and books, among other merchandise. Although he once described himself as “buying junk and selling treasures,” Ray immediately recognized the merit of the small portrait he quickly dubbed “Little Anna” because he believes it to be of Anna Beatrice Massa.
“I saw how beautiful this fabulous treasure was and knew it was time to find a new home for her,” he said. “When asked to lead this effort, I thought, ‘Why not? I’ve done most everything else. Why not Old Master authentication’.” Ray chronicled the undertaking in his 2007 book, “Anna’s Song: A True Story.”
He quickly learned authentication boils down basically to proving a painting is not a fake. “True authentication process requires a combination of logic, art and science,” he noted.
NYC & Mr. Slive
After discovering Sir Edward John Poynter’s attribution and Hals’ monogram on the painting, the portrait’s owner, a retired antiques dealer who will be referred to as Mr. R., rushed his newly discovered treasure to the New York art meccas, Christie’s and Sotheby’s. As expected, the art authorities gave him neither a yes nor a no, but indicated they would like an opportunity to study the portrait further.
Mr. R. refused to leave the painting with them, however. At that point, he was advised to continue his own authentication efforts and was pointed in the direction of Seymour Slive.
A Hals’ scholar and director of Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum since 1975, Slive opined the small portrait had been painted in the early 1900s.
“A lot of fakes came out of Europe at that time,” Ray said, venturing a cynical guess that many museums have fraudulent paintings from this period - the Golden Age of Forgery - hanging on their hallowed walls.
He pointed out, however, that Slive had offered his opinion after looking at a photograph, not the original portrait. Nor, Ray said, did Slive do an extensive comparison of “Little Anna” with an eerily similar companion portrait in Cincinnati’s Taft Museum of Art.
Nevertheless, Slive pronounced “Little Anna” a copy of the Hals’ work in the Taft Museum.
“With all due respect to Mr. Slive, he did not do his homework,” Ray offered matter-of-factly. “He never ‘put his nose to the canvas’ as they say in the art trade.” While describing Slive as “well-respected in the art world,” Ray insisted, “He just made a wrong call on ‘Little Anna’.”
According to Ray, Slive admitted previous errors regarding the work of Frans Hals - specifically in the 1989 “Frans Hals Exhibition Catalog” from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. “It takes a big man to admit that he made a bad call,” Ray noted.
Companion portrait found
After returning from New York, the owner of “Little Anna” took the portrait to San Antonio’s McNay Art Institute and Witte Museum. Although curators in both museums offered to exhibit the painting, the owner refused.
“I’m sure the fine knowledgeable people in those museums would not have wanted to exhibit this painting had they not believed Poynter’s label and the Hals’ mark (were authentic),” Ray said. He added, “The young man was smart. He refused to let the portrait out of his sight.”
In his authentication effort, Ray enlisted the aid of researchers at his company, GloTag Press with his wife, Judy, serving as senior researcher.
Happenstance led to Ray’s hypothesis that the companion painting in the Taft Museum and “Little Anna” are the same woman painted by Hals over a decade apart.
While surfing the Internet, Judy Ray discovered the portrait by Hals in the Taft and printed it out for a comparison to “Little Anna.” It turned out to be almost a “Dorian Gray” moment for Tom Ray.
“At first the two paintings seemed almost identical, except for the faces of the two ladies in the portraits,” he said. “Looking quickly at the two paintings, side by side, one would think one was real and the other a copy.”
During the next two years, however, Ray and his researchers decided the two portraits were totally different - and neither was a copy. “It is obvious the two portraits are of the same person painted years apart,” Ray said. “One shows a 10- to 12-year-old girl and the other painting is of the same girl as a mature young lady in her 20s.”
The portrait in the Taft was painted by Hals between 1648 and 1650. The date on “Little Anna” is 1633.
(Editor’s note: In Part 3 of this series, Tom Ray describes the nearly impossible task of authenticating Little Anna, “a lost and unknown Old Master.)