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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)
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)

Ontario brothers buy painting on eBay that could be worth millions Add to ...

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.

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.”

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