This 19th century painting by an unknown artist features a circa 1860s view of Hallowell. It was auctioned by Sotheby’s for more than $200,000. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

A 19th century painting of Hallowell’s cityscape as seen from Chelsea defied a $50,000 price estimate at auction at Sotheby’s, eventually selling last month for $201,600.

The painting is not signed, and the artist is unknown. But to the buyer, Connecticut-based art dealer David Schorsch, that is the magic of folk art.

“One of the things that makes American folk art one of the purest forms of art is that many great pictures are by unknown artists,” he said. “It forces people to actually look at the art and gauge it on the quality and subject matter of the pieces.”

David Schorsch

Schorsch, 57, said he bought the painting as inventory for his dealership, which is based in Woodbury, Connecticut. He said works like the Hallowell painting are rare in the folk art fields, as many of the paintings depict people and rarely show identifiable places.

“When I look at a work of art, it has to give me a certain special kind of thrill,” said Schorsch, who has dealt in folk art for four decades. “I’ve looked at tens of thousands of paintings (and) … my job is to identify the great ones from the good ones.

“The first time I saw the photograph of this piece, my antenna went up. When I went down to New York, … it spoke to me,” he added. “It’s a rarer and rarer things to get that thrill.”

The oil painting was listed as a piece from the estate of Margaret P. Gregory of Connecticut, the sister-in-law of well-known folk art collector Stewart Gregory.

Margaret’s son, Julian Gregory said his uncle Stewart kept his massive art and furniture collection in a barn in Wilton, Connecticut, likening it to “a museum of Americana.” After his death, his collection was sold off at Sotheby’s, but some items were purchased by family members.

“It was the largest single Americana collection ever sold,” Julian Gregory said. “I believe the Hallowell painting was part of that collection.”

Nancy Druckman, a former Sotheby’s executive turned consultant, oversaw the auction of Stewart Gregory’s collection on Jan. 27, 1979. She said the collection included 370 items and grossed nearly $4 million.

“It was shocking actually just how hungry people were for this material,” Druckman said. “It was a landmark sale that really established the field of American folk art as a really important and significant to the total picture of American art.”

Julian Gregory said his mother purchased the Hallowell painting at auction, and later displayed it prominently at a family property in Connecticut.

“In the 1800s, the architecture was so odd, but it was all stained glass windows and dark paneled walls,” he said. “The painting was in there, lit above the fireplace.

“It was crushing to lose it, but you can see how much it went for,” Julian Gregory said. “As much as we’ll miss it, we’ll be able to put food on the table.”

Schorsch said the piece being part of Stewart Gregory’s famous collection increases its value, leading him to see additional value in a future sale.

“The sale of his collection in 1979 was the event that catapulted the event of American Folk Art into a price range from which it never slowed down,” Schorsch said. “In my mind, I look at it and I see greater value and that’s what I’m betting on.”

He said he has visited Hallowell a number of times and knows former antiques dealers in the city. Schorsch’s antiques business has also sold works to the Maine State Museum in Augusta.

The painting is dated circa 1860, according to the listing, and measures 35.5 inches wide and 20.75 inches deep. The painting has minor cracks and age-related wear on the canvas, according to auction information.

In a January Kennebec Journal report, state historian Earle Shettleworth said he came across a black-and-white photograph of the painting about a year ago in the collection of the Hubbard Free Library.

The age of the painting was determined by the presence of the bridge connecting Hallowell and Chelsea, which was constructed in 1860, and destroyed by floods in 1869 and 1870. Shettleworth said that range can be narrowed to 1867 because the structure of the Hallowell Cotton Mill changed that year and the former configuration is shown in the painting.

The painting features numerous historic landmarks of Hallowell, and a scene on the Kennebec River that harkens to the city’s history as a bustling port.

Founded in London, Sotheby’s, now headquartered in New York City, is one of the world’s largest brokers and auctioneers of art, jewelry, real estate and other collectibles. Officials from Sotheby’s were not available for comment after multiple requests for comment.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.