Rio History: Hidden in Plain Sight

Special to the PRESS

Gergely Barki, a researcher at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest, thought the 20th century Hungarian painting Sleeping Lady with Black Vase by Robert Bereny, (last seen in public in 1928,) was lost forever, that is until he sat down to watch the movie “Stuart Little”  with his daughter on Christmas Day in 2009 .

“I could not believe my eyes when I saw Bereny’s long-lost masterpiece on the wall behind Hugh Laurie.” Barki told reporters.

In the movie, the famous painting can be seen hanging over the fireplace behind the fictional Little family as they pose for a family portrait in their New York City apartment.

Barki sent off a series of emails to everyone involved with the film and eventually was able to track down a set designer who had purchased the prop for $500 at an antique shop in Pasadena, California.

“She had snapped it up for next to nothing,” Barki said. She liked it so much she bought it from the studio for herself. “It was hanging on her bedroom wall in Washington,” Barki said. “Within a year, I had a chance to visit her and see the painting and tell her everything about the painter. She was very surprised.”

Bereny was a member of a group of avant-garde Hungarian painters known as “the Eight.” In 1920 he traveled to Berlin where he had a love affair with the actress Marlene Dietrich.

Barki guessed the piece’s original buyer was Jewish and left Hungary before or during World War II.

After hearing Barki’s tale the set designer sold the piece to an art dealer who put it up for auction in Budapest where the work sold for $275,700 on December 15, 2014.

Though he did not benefit monetarily from his discovery Barki said he expects his discovery to prove helpful as he writes a book on the artist, Robert Bereny.

“It means that I can make a more complete publication of Bereny’s oeuvre catalog,” Barki said.

Phillip LeClerc of Weymouth, Massachusetts happened to be in the right place at the right time when he bought a desk at an auction for $40.The desk, a General Winthrop reproduction, had come from the estate of a 94 year old man whose son was selling the house and furnishings.

As LeClerc was moving the desk, a knob from an inner drawer fell off. Looking for the knob, he saw an envelope, in plain sight, sticking out from a small gap under the drawer and…..well, I’m sure you can guess the rest.

“The first piece I saw had a denomination of $500 and that was enough to shake me up,” LeClerc said. He and his wife ended up finding an entire stack of U.S. Savings bonds, including six worth $10,000. The bonds, which had matured in 1992 had been collecting interest ever since. If redeemed today, the bonds would bring $127,000 to the estate.

After contacting the president of Kelley Auctions to get the bonds back to their owner LeClerc found out the family who they belonged to had been looking for them “for years,”

Undoubtedly different family members had searched the desk before putting it in the auction yet none had thought to pull the drawers out to see if anything of value was hidden underneath.

“It was really a fluke that it was found. If I wasn’t looking for the knob … I never would have found it,” he said, adding, “I think it’s probably going to make a big difference” for the family.

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