Tuesday, November 14, 2006

£1m lost masterpiece found in pensioner's spare bedroom

The Times
November 14, 2006

£1m lost masterpiece found in pensioner's spare bedroom

By Simon de Bruxelles

She ate ready meals, travelled by bus and loved the little paintings she bought for £200

TWO small paintings in the spare room of a pensioner in Oxford have been identified as the missing pieces from a masterpiece of medieval art worth well over £1 million. The altarpiece of the church and convent of St Marco in Florence, painted in 1439 by the monk known as Fra Angelico, was one of the glories of the Italian Renaissance. It was broken up during the Napoleonic wars. Six of the eight small paintings that surrounded the main panel had been found and the location of the last two was described as one of art’s greatest mysteries.

The mystery has been solved at the home of Jean Preston, 77, a retired academic who died this year. Miss Preston, an expert on medieval handwriting, lived modestly, bought her clothes from a catalogue, ate frozen meals and travelled by bus, but she always rather liked the small paintings hanging in her spare room.

She originally bought them as a present for her father in the early 1960s while she was working in America. She is believed to have paid no more than £200 for the pair. She inherited them after his death in 1974 but it was not until shortly before her own death that she discovered the secret of the modest portraits of two saints in medieval clothing.
They were identified by Michael Liversidge, a family friend and former head of the History of Art department at the University of Bristol. Mr Liversidge, who will deliver a lecture on the find at the British Institute in Florence tomorrow, said: “I’d known the owner for several years and she knew they were good paintings but had no idea what they were. When I told the lady the news she was more interested than anything else and was pleased that her ‘ eye’ had been correct. It was pleasing that she found out what they were before she died.”

The small works, each measuring 38cm by 13cm (15in by 5in), are painted in tempera paint on poplar wood. The background is gold leaf. They were commissioned by Cosimo de Medici, one of the greatest art patrons in history.

Miss Preston was curator of historic manuscripts at a museum in Huntington, California, when she bought the paintings. Two other panels are in the US and the other four are in collections in Germany.

A nephew of Miss Preston said: “She bought the paintings because she thought they were rather nice. She used to hang them up in the spare room behind the door. When I used to stay with her, I slept on a sofa bed underneath them. My auntie lived very modestly, totally unostentatious.”