Auction  December 20, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

The $4 Wyeth Painting Bought in Thrift Store Sells Big

Bonhams Skinner

Newell Convers Wyeth (American, 1882-1945) Ramona, frontispiece illustration (Señora Gonzaga Moreno and Ramona) 25 1/8 x 16 7/8 in. framed 28 x 19 1/2 x 1 1/4 in.

It’s a thrifter’s dream: buy a small painting for $4, find out it's incredibly rare, and come out on the other side of an auction with over $100,000. That is what happened to Tracy Donahue, a New Hampshire resident who became famous in 2017 for finding a work by American painter and illustrator N. C. Wyeth at a thrift store. But after putting the work up for auction earlier this year and selling it for $191,000, the buyer never paid and Donahue was left with her $4 painting. This week, Donahue finally got her due: the work was sold through Aviva Lehmann of Heritage Auctions to a private collector for over $100,000.

It all began in 2017 when Tracy Donahue went to a Savers in New Hampshire looking for a picture frame. She bought the now-known Wyeth work for $4 and kept the work in her house for years. In May of this year, she rediscovered the work and noticed that on the back there was a signed label. Interested in what it may be, she posted it to a Facebook group called, “Things Found in Walls” and commenters alerted her that it could be valuable.

Art conservator, Lauren Lewis, was one of the many who saw the post on social media and reached out to see if she could help identify the work, according to the New York Times. She examined the piece, and later it was identified as a frontispiece illustration by N. C. Wyeth for the 1939 edition of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel, “Ramona.”

Via Wikimedia Commons

The cover of Treasure Island by N.C. Wyeth, one of the 25 covers Wyeth did for Scribner Classics, which is the series for which he is best known.

Wyeth is one of the top American illustrators of the 20th century, known for his depictions of stories from Robin Hood, Rip Van Winkle, and Robinson Crusoe, among many others. He was also featured on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post and he contributed to the U.S. Treasury campaign to sell war bonds. Wyeth’s work is in the collections of the Brandywine River Museum in Maine, the Portland Museum of Art, and the Farnsworth Art Museum. His home is also a National Historic Landmark in Chadds Ford, Maine. Wyeth is also the father of painter Andrew Wyeth, best known for his painting Christina's World (1948), and whose work is in the Museum of Modern Art, among other collections. 

In September, the work went for auction at Bonhams Skinner with an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000. When the bidding opened at $150,000, an Australian bidder placed the first and only bid. With the buyer's premium, that went up to $191,000. But after weeks of waiting for payment, the sale was canceled as the buyer never paid, and the work was returned to the family. 

The Donahues were reportedly looking forward to the profits so that they could take a vacation to visit their son in Germany. Donahue said it was her “biggest disappointment ever.” She went on, “Luckily we didn’t spend a dime beforehand…so it’s not like actually losing money. But it meant so much.”

But this month, Aviva Lehmann, who saw the news about the canceled sale, immediately knew of a private collector who would want the work. According to the Times, Lehmann called the collector at 3 a.m., at the same time that the collector sent her a message about the work. She called it “kismet.” The work was sold, and this time, the Donahues’ received their share. Once the money hit their account, they called their son in Germany and told him to start planning because they are coming to visit.

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