Ontario brothers buy painting on eBay that could be worth millions

The Globe and Mail

Ron Flarity, left, Ken Marshall and Blair Mooney, of Owen Sound, Ont., three of the principal owners of a painting that Ron bought on eBay in 2007. They believe it is an original Hopper painting, and potentially worth millions of dollars. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

History is spangled with stories of treasures found in Aunty Milly’s attic or at the neighbourhood garage sale. But for each such triumph, there are cautionary tales of masterpieces exposed as fakes, of misattributions, reattributions and humbling downgrades.

So you may be forgiven if you think it improbable, impossible even, that a group of long-time friends from Owen Sound, Ont., population 22,000, are, through a series of jaw-dropping circumstances, the owners of a small but heretofore unknown oil study by Edward Hopper. Yes, that Edward Hopper, legendary creator of such iconic canvasses as Nighthawks and Cape Cod Evening, American master of shadow and light, poet of lonely days and brooding nights, dead now 46 years.

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At least the friends – Ron Flarity, 60; Blair Mooney, 55; Ken Marshall, 64; and Helen Flarity, the 57-year-old widow of Ron’s brother, Don – believe their painting is genuine. They do so after spending more than $40,000 over the past six years on expert opinion, advice and a series of unprecedented professional forensic studies both on their painting and on a bona-fide Hopper masterpiece, 1949’s High Noon at the Dayton Art Institute in Ohio, a painting to which the friends’ oil study bears a striking resemblance.

The result of this astonishing perseverance? “We’re pert near 100-per-cent convinced it’s a Hopper,” says Ron Flarity. And a 61-page report, summarizing the forensic testing, is now circulating through the art world. If he’s right (and if previous prices realized at auction are any indication), the oil’s depiction of two women and one dog outside a sun-blasted Cape Cod-style house could be worth millions.

Others aren’t so sure: After all, the circumstances by which Oil Study of High Noon came to be stored in a humidity-controlled bank vault in Owen Sound are nothing short of fantastic. But those circumstances would likely be overlooked if the friends could engage the full co-operation of someone they first contacted more than five years ago: the world’s foremost Hopper expert, New York art historian Gail Levin.

A copy of the forensics report, prepared by Toronto conservators Richard and Janice Passafiume and sent by registered mail to Levin in mid-June, has so far elicited no acknowledgment of receipt, let alone a consideration of its contents. (Repeated e-mails to her by the conservators also have gone unanswered.)

And her co-operation is important. That’s because technical or scientific analysis is just one element of any authentication process. Also required are art-historical documentation – the circumstances of a work’s creation, its succession of owners (known as provenance), its exhibition history – and stylistic connoisseurship. Both are lacking for the Owen Sound oil study.

Levin certainly has the connoisseurship: From 1976 to 1984, she served as Hopper curator at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, and she has been custodian of Hopper’s estate since the 1968 death of the artist’s wife, Jo. Levin is also the author of many books on Hopper, including a mammoth biography published in 1995 and updated in 2007; and is the editor of a 2006 catalogue raisonné of the artist, comprising a three-volume boxed set of the text and a CD-ROM. Of course, there are other Hopper experts out there – but Levin is such a commanding presence that Sotheby’s New York, to which the Owen Sound owners have been hoping to consign their property, says it will look at the oil study only if Levin says in writing that she believes it to be genuine.

“They’ve got an uphill battle, they really do,” says Bruce Loch, proprietor of Thurston Royce Gallery in Allentown, Pa., a highly regarded purveyor, since the early seventies, of works by Hopper. And even should Levin ultimately be persuaded to examine the Owen Sound study, adds Loch, “if there’s the slightest doubt, she won’t authenticate.”

When I first visited Flarity, Mooney and Marshall last summer in their town near the shores of Georgian Bay, they removed the painting from its vault and carefully unwrapped it in Flarity’s kitchen. “The masterpiece” was how Marshall referred to it. “It’s the painting that wanted to have its story told.”

“Do you believe in it now, Marj?” Flarity called to his wife a couple of times.

Every saga requires a beginning. Let’s start this one on May 4, 2007. That morning, Ron Flarity, a former employee of the nearby town of Wiarton, and then on long-term disability, went into the main-floor den of his modest Owen Sound home to fire up his computer. He and his younger brother, Don, liked to collect paintings, “more or less as a hobby,” visiting live auctions, flea markets and the like, and sometimes bidding online at eBay’s Canadian and U.S. sites. “We’d turn them over, make $100 on this one, $200 on that,” Ron Flarity recalled. “We never got rich at it, but we had a lot of fun.”

That spring day, he decided he’d check the art on eBay U.K. “And that’s when this painting came up.” It was a rendering of two women and a dog outside a house, identified simply as a 14-inch by 18-inch (36-cm by 46-cm) work by Edward Hopper. Flarity didn’t know much about the artist, but a cursory online check clued him in.

“I get lookin’ at it. It seems old, and I thought, ‘What the heck?’ and put a bid in, probably a couple of hundred dollars.” Another online bidder jumped in, and for the next 45 minutes each upped the ante. Then, with about 15 minutes left in the auction, Don Flarity – on disability as well, and wracked by lung cancer – walked into the room, looked at the computer screen and told his brother, “I’ll go in half with you. Just wait for the last 30 seconds, though, and hit in an extra 50 bucks.”

Ron did so, and their bid prevailed: For $585 (U.S.), the Flarity brothers were now the owners of a purported Edward Hopper painting (signed HOPRER in the lower right-hand corner). Ten days and $65 in shipping fees later, the unframed painting, glued to Masonite backing, and sheathed in bubble wrap and brown paper, arrived in Owen Sound.

Enquiring about his purchase, Ron Flarity learned that it had been consigned to eBay by one Darren Rooney of County Down, Northern Ireland, a self-described entrepreneur, and director since 2006 of East Down Creations. That company, according to its promotional literature, specialized in “producing any bespoke painting in accordance with any specification … from a small watercolour to a large oil painting,” and, in their only e-mail exchange, Rooney told Flarity that he had bought the small oil at a flea market near his home. It was Flarity’s understanding that Rooney, like him, “bought and sold paintings trying to make extra money.”

By consigning his find to eBay, it appears Rooney didn’t believe the oil painting had any inordinate value. But it was unclear what his opinion was of the painting’s actual history. Did he think it might, indeed, be a genuine Hopper – in which case, presumably, he did not know how important Hopper was or how valuable were his paintings? If he did know something about Hopper, was he not curious about how the work ended up thousands of kilometres from Hopper’s artistic turf? Did Rooney maybe see it simply as the work of a respectful Hopper imitator? Or did he think it might be a deliberate forgery, designed for illegal sale, that had somehow gone astray? Rooney will never be able to answer such questions: In June, 2011, he was killed, at age 35, in a car accident. (Attempts by The Globe and Mail to reach his surviving relations have been rebuffed; East Down Creations is no longer in existence.)

No sooner had Ron Flarity completed his eBay transaction than he started to walk the long and winding road that would occupy much of his attention for the next six years. His efforts to, first, determine what he and his brother had bought, and, then, to convince the world it was a real Hopper would bring him into contact with dozens of individuals and institutions – art dealers in Ontario, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York; a Toronto auction house; a Montreal art specialist; forensic experts from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and McMaster in Hamilton; the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles; Toronto’s Humber College; conservationists; the Art Loss Register; and Gail Levin herself. En route, he’d lose his brother to a heart attack, and gain two new partners – friends Ken Marshall, a retired real-estate agent; and Blair Mooney, a farmer – to maintain momentum, bankroll research, and do their own investigations.

In that authentication effort, four key episodes stand out.

Ron Flarity’s realization that the oil study resembles High Noon, the bona-fide Hopper in the Dayton Art Institute.

Before he began to bid on that May day in 2007, Flarity’s online search for Hopper information brought up an image of High Noon, donated in 1971 to the Ohio museum by industrialist Anthony Haswell and his wife, Virginia. The Haswells had bought the painting in late 1951 from Frank Rehn, the New York gallerist who served as one of Hopper’s primary dealers from 1921 until his death in 1956, 11 years before Hopper’s own demise at age 84.

Flarity noted some of the obvious differences between the two: The Dayton painting was twice as large as the eBay oil, and much fresher in appearance; it had only one woman, not two, and it lacked the dog and the sealine of the sketch. Still, the similarities – the design of each house; the right-angle shadow by each doorway; the number, shape and look of the windows – were sufficiently strong that, recalls Flarity, “it influenced me to start bidding.”

The discovery that the oil study, in fact, comprises two images.

In October, 2010, Janice Passafiume, a Queen’s University-trained conservator who, with her photographer husband, Richard, is principal of JANA Fine Art CPR (Conservation Preservation Research) Ltd., agreed to meet Flarity and Marshall at a medical-imaging centre in Toronto. Earlier, a photomicrographic inspection of the study in Montreal had indicated another, indeterminate image beneath the surface presentation. An X-ray at the imaging centre revealed it to be the face of a large-eyed, apparently bearded man, almost Christ-like in appearance, with seemingly stylized initials – “JH” – to the right of his shoulder and halos around his head.

A consultation of Levin’s biography on Hopper revealed that the artist, perhaps in the throes of a spiritual crisis, had been depressed in the early months of 1949, and for consolation had turned to Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus and to the New Testament. Following what Jo Hopper called her husband’s “sympathetic response to Jesus,” he had begun to “try to make sketches.” A few months later, at his studio in Truro, Cape Cod, Jo reports that he began “sketching for his first canvas since January [1949]” – an activity that soon produced the image of “the front of an old house with 2 figures in doorway & 2 dormer windows on [2nd] floor.” Eventually, wrote Jo, Hopper would be working on a 271/2-inch-by-391/2-inch canvas – but that painting featured only one woman, the woman in High Noon.

Flarity and Marshall wondered: Could the “2 figures in doorway” sketch that Jo Hopper cited be the one put up for auction 68 years later on eBay? And might it be possible that her husband had painted it over an earlier one of Christ – one either by Hopper himself or, perhaps, his wife, also an accomplished artist, albeit primarily as a water-colourist (hence the initials that could be read as “JH”)? “We believe it was done by Edward Hopper,” says Flarity.

The Dayton Art Institute agrees to allow a Canadian art-forensics team to subject High Noon to a number of tests.

Intrigued by the results of the October, 2010, X-ray, the Passafiumes agreed to undertake additional tests on the oil study. “We told [the owners] the science might not pan out for them and things could get quite expensive,” said Janice Passafiume in an interview with The Globe and Mail, “but they told us to go ahead.”

Added her husband: “One of the parts of our process is that the client must persuade us. We want them to do as much research as possible into what they believe, and then bring it back to us.”

By early 2011, the Passafiumes were scanning the oil with X-ray and ultraviolet fluorescence (to determine the chemical elements of the painting). They learned that the paints used were chock full of zinc – something Hopper was averse to, preferring long-lasting lead-based paints. This proved to be only a temporary setback, however: Hopper’s preferred flake-white paint also contained zinc, although this fact wasn’t printed on the tube’s label.

Still, the Passafiumes knew something was still needed: a detailed comparison of similar areas in the Owen Sound oil study and in High Noon. Overtures were made to Dayton, and after what DAI registrar Sally Kurtz calls “months and months of correspondence,” the Passafiumes and the Owen Sound four got permission to undertake three days of forensic study on High Noon in June, 2012. Explaining the museum’s motivation in granting the go-ahead, Kurtz said,We had no ultraviolet, infrared reflectography or X-ray fluorescence analysis by professional conservators.” Here, in other words, was an opportunity for the museum to significantly increase its knowledge of the most valuable American painting while, added Kurtz, assisting “future scholars in their research on Hopper.”

Joined by George Bevan, assistant professor of classics and art conservation at Queen’s University; his assistant, Ian Longo; and Joseph Robison, the Columbus-based owner/operator of a hand-held X-ray fluorescence instrument, the Passafiumes loaded in the equipment at the DAI: ultraviolet lights, a stereobinocular microscope, a video camera, and an infrared reflectograph machine, among other things. Microtools in hand, Janice Passafiume proceeded to extract 30 samples of paint from High Noon, none bigger than “the head of a needle,” to be compared later with some 50 samples taken from similar areas on the oil study.

In fact, however, the non-intrusive reflectography procedures on High Noon produced immediate, astonishing results. Hopper’s preparatory understudy contained much more cloud cover than he included in his finished painting, cloud cover that in several instances correspended with that in the oil study. What’s more, the researchers discovered a combination of strokes to the right of the standing woman in more or less the same position as that of the dog in the study; a dark horizon line, suggesting the blue water of the study; and a hint of shrubbery below the horizon line, echoing the lusher foliage in the study.

Perhaps tellingly, though, the reflectography revealed no readily perceptible trace of any drawing of the nude sitting on the doorway steps. Still, what the owners were seeing was sufficiently persuasive to have them conclude that their oil study was a genuine Hopper. After all, no earlier subsurface examinations of High Noon had ever been done, certainly not by the DAI. Only Hopper, they reasoned, would have known what was underneath the public High Noon – and therefore only Hopper could have positioned the corresponding elements in the oil study.

In fact, reason the Passafiumes, only one other explanation could be posited: that another individual had been in Hopper’s Cape Cod studio at the time he was preparing High Noon – someone who, observing the master’s preparatory work, turned around to incorporate some of its components in an oil study. However, as the journals of Jo Hopper indicate, according to Janice Passfiume, “she and Linda Beal [a neighbour’s teenage daughter and sometime model] were the only other persons in Hopper’s studio at that time, and we are comfortable in ruling out both as the sketch artist.”

The failure to enlist the active participation of the world’s leading Hopper scholar, Gail Levin, in the authentication process.

Levin, a professor at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of City University of New York, is not entirely unfamiliar with the Owen Sound oil study. There were, in fact, several exchanges between Levin and the study’s owners from January, 2008 (after an image of the study and other documents had been forwarded to New York) to April, 2011.

However, none – including an authentication-fee payment of $5,232.50 (U.S.), dated Jan. 18, 2008, which the owners agreed to send to Levin’s bank – has resulted in the scholar physically examining the work in question, even though she would acknowledge, in an Oct. 5, 2010, e-mail to the owners, that “without seeing a work in person, I never conclude my opinion of whether a work is or is not authentic.”

Nevertheless, she has twice dismissed the oil study. She first did so – a few weeks after the owners transferred the money to her – in a conference call involving Flarity, Marshall, Waddington’s auctioneers of Toronto and an Owen Sound gallery owner. During the call, according to Flarity’s recollection, Levin deemed the oil to be by “a follower,” and indicated its purchase on eBay was a major blow to any claim of authenticity.

Despite that exchange, the owners continued to send her research as it became available, including the results of the X-ray of the oil study, plus a December, 2010, preliminary pigment analysis, using X-ray fluorescence, by Toronto conservator Marilyn Laver. On April 7, 2011, however, Levin delivered, by e-mail, her second and final dismissal: “In my opinion, this work is not by Edward Hopper. So sorry, but that is my last word on the subject. You are free to seek other opinions.” E-mails and phone calls to Levin by The Globe and Mail have not been responded to.

It appears the Owen Sound owners are not alone in their frustrations. In early 2001, U.S. businessman and collector Fred Ross published a report online about his efforts to persuade Levin to authenticate a possible Hopper that he was thinking of buying. At one point, Ross quotes Levin as saying, “I don’t want to do this [authentication] any more. Everybody and his brother think they’ve discovered a Hopper, and I can’t be bothered looking at items every time someone wants me to.” Believing his to be authentic, Ross bought the watercolour without Levin’s authentication, and hasn’t heard from her since publishing his report. He did not tape his conversation with her, he said, but sat down to write it “while [the conversation] was still fresh in my mind.”

Of course, the Owen Sound owners could sell their painting online, privately, without firm authentication, or consign it to a less august auction house. But previous instances of taking such a route are not encouraging. Last October, Barridoff Galleries in South Portland, Me., put up for auction a hitherto unknown and unsigned purported Hopper oil on board, Tredwell’s Folly. Estimated at $200,000-$300,000 (U.S.), the painting, not included in Levin’s catalogue raisonné nor authenticated by her, was declared unsold when bidding stalled at $95,000.

Still, the Canadians haven’t totally given up hope that Gail Levin will do a thorough examination of their oil and deem it authentic – or, if not her, perhaps some other connoisseur. New discoveries, after all, continue to be made about Hopper. This past spring, Yale University Press published a book of some 60 letters to the artist from an intimate named Alta Hilsdale (1884-1948), a woman unmentioned in the expanded 2007 edition of Levin’s biography. If Hilsdale existed in obscurity for so long, is it so far-fetched that there could exist a previously unknown art work by the master?

Admittedly, there are some strikes against the Canadian oil study. Hopper was finicky about his paints – yet the oil-study paints are decidedly inferior to those in High Noon: heavily laced with turpentine, in fact. And although Hopper was cautious about his expenses, he was sufficiently well-off in 1949 (the Whitney would host a popular retrospective in February, 1950) that he didn’t have to paint over an already worked-on canvas.

Moreover, while the artist is known to have done as many as 30 or 40 preparatory sketches for a single painting, there’s virtually no evidence of him ever doing a preparatory oil. Finally, Hopper and his wife were assiduous record-keepers; and except, it seems, for Jo Hopper’s tantalizing diary entry about her husband “starting a canvas – the front of an old house with 2 figures in doorway,” there’s no known inventory in their ledgers about an oil closely resembling or identical to the Owen Sound sketch.

That said, it’s clear from Levin’s own biography of the master that Hopper struggled to bring High Noon to fruition, going so far as to make a model out of white paper “to observe how light would fall on the corner of the house.” If he was willing to do that, would a quick oil sketch, using cheap paints, be entirely out of the question? (Hopper, it should be added, did at least three compositional sketches, in crayon or charcoal, of the full setting of High Noon. In each of those, there are two figures, one in a window, the other outside. And while there is no doorway in any of these drawings, one of them does have the silhouette of a dog’s head in its upper left corner.)

The Passifiumes maintain a detached tone when drawing conclusions from their research. They won’t declare that the oil is a Hopper – only that their investigations “do not rule out Hopper as the artist.” Still, on June 13, they spoke of how the similarities between the previously unknown components of High Noon and the elements visible in the study “are evidence of a strong, perhaps even unmistakable connection between the two works.” Five weeks later, Richard Passfiume was affirming that opinion. There is, he observed, “a definite, intimate relationship.”

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