$40 sketch could be a $9,000 Utrillo Did Baltimorean hit the jackpot?

July 27, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

At an auction last December, Fred Salinger paid $40 for a pencil sketch bearing the signature of French artist Maurice Utrillo, figuring it might be worth something if it turned out to be the genuine article.

"I didn't really have any particular feel for the value of it," the retired engineer said yesterday. "I didn't know if it was a pencil sketch or not. It might have been a cheap print."

But when he sent the sketch to Sotheby's auction house in New York, a drawing specialist there declared the piece authentic and estimated its value "conservatively" at between $7,000 and $9,000. Sotheby's asked to sell the work at its Oct. 5 auction.

Final judgment on the artwork's pedigree is still pending: Sotheby's sent a photograph of it to the Galerie Petrides in Paris for a second opinion, due next month.

Even if the experts decide the sketch, which depicts a street in Paris' Montmartre district, is a fake after all, Mr. Salinger won't be heartbroken, he said.

"It kind of grows on you a little bit," he said. "Maybe if the people in Paris say no, his [Utrillo's] son or his neighbor drew it, it may not be worth the $40 I paid for it. In which case I'll hang it back up and say, that's it. It's not an eyesore by any means."

But the prospect of selling the work for 200 times what he paid for it doesn't bother him, either.

"More than anything else, I bought it to find out if it was worth anything at all," he said.

"I thought it would be worth $400 or $500. And maybe that's all somebody is willing to pay at the auction. In which case it will be back here, on the wall."

Mr. Salinger's first inkling of the potential value of the sketch came when he took it to a frame shop last winter to replace its "cheap, dime store frame."

He said the man behind the counter took one look and said he would have it framed by the next day.

"Gee, that's fast," Mr. Salinger replied.

"Yes, I don't want it in the shop any longer than necessary," because it might be stolen, the man said.

Utrillo, born in 1883 in Paris, was the son of a single mother, Suzanne Valadon, an artist's model and a painter herself.

He became an alcoholic while still a teen-ager, and his mother urged him to paint as a form of therapy. He became a prolific artist and, despite frequent drinking sprees, produced thousands of oils, pencil sketches and prints before his death in 1955.

While his works bring high prices in the international art market, the artist is not universally admired by critics. Jay M. Fisher of the Baltimore Museum of Art said Utrillo is "more popular than he is important."

"He did some good work early on," Mr. Fisher said. "But most of his later work is considered repetitive and not of the highest quality. He's one of those artists who found a good thing and just kept repeating himself."

The artist was considered to have reached the height of his powers between 1908 and 1914. Mr. Salinger's drawing isn't dated. But a page from an English-language newspaper glued to seal the back of the original frame contains an advertisement for flapper-style fashions and a review of a silent movie starring Rudolph Valentino, who died in 1926.

Mr. Salinger, who owns a condominium apartment near Johns Hopkins University, has a passion for collecting, and owns more than two dozen Persian rugs. The New York native, who will say only that he is "over 65," likes to browse at antique stores and has a weakness for cut glass, brass lamps and antique or antique-style furniture.

But he has purchased only a few paintings. Previously, none of them was worth very much.

"I have a cheap imitation print of one of his [Utrillo's] prints hanging in my bedroom, decently framed, simply because I like it," he said. Mr. Salinger's mother owns a print made by the artist. "So when I saw this listed in a [Baltimore] auction catalog, I decided to take a look," he said.

Barr Harris of the Harris Auction Galleries, who sold the drawing to Mr. Salinger, said yesterday that small galleries like his can't afford the detective work involved in authenticating artworks or antiques.

On rare occasions, major art works are sold for a fraction of their market value.

That's what happened a few years ago when an Anne Arundel County man brought Mr. Harris a still life and mentioned that the previous owners believed it was painted by Raphael Peale, one of the sons of Baltimore's Charles Wilson Peale, who painted numerous portraits and scenes of the American Revolution.

But there was no proof of the artist's identity. At auction, Mr. Harris sold the painting, which depicts a cantaloupe and an ear of corn, to an Eastern Avenue antiques dealer for about $800. In mid-May of this year, Sotheby's in New York put the painting up for auction, estimating its value at $600,000 to $800,000. (It didn't sell, but Mr. Harris thinks that's because the owner declined to consider bids under $500,000.)

Mr. Salinger, meanwhile, still isn't absolutely certain he has hit the art world's equivalent of the lottery. He may still be the proud owner of an increasingly expensive humbug.

"So far my $40 pencil sketch has cost me $350 for the verification and $110 for the frame," he said. "So if they say some kid scribbled this on a piece of paper, that's the chance I take."

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