The Antiques Roadshow is an interesting operation. They stagger the people going to it and there is an enormous army of people who come. It really is nothing more than a place that people can come to get instant appraisals of work. If there is anything particularly interesting, they take you to their little studio and film it for the show. We were there primarily to get an appraisal on a painting by Bernard Frouchtben that we have had in the family for the past 15 years. Over the past 5 years, I’ve been trying to find out as much as I could about this fascinating painter. And I do know rather a lot about him, so I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new about him—except for one thing: if any of his paintings had sold at auction.
I was right to expect this information, because the experts at the Antiques Roadshow pretty much only have that in their arsenal of weapons. So the expert that I spoke to informed me that none of his work had been auctioned. She could not “find him in the database.” That was unfortunate, because I really did think that over the years a least some of his work would have found its way onto the market. But the appraiser’s attitude I’m afraid is very typical of the art market in general. Paintings are worth what they’ve sold for. Had there been just two or three rich art collectors in the past who recognized Frouchtben’s brilliance, he might be worth millions now.
The appraiser did provide some other information. She noted that if the painting had been taken care of, it would now be worth at least a couple of thousand dollars—in fact, she claimed that she would buy it right then if it were in that condition. As it was, it might sell for a couple of hundred. That’s interesting, but I don’t personally care about what people would pay for the work. It doesn’t belong to me anyway—it is my father’s painting. (Not that I would mind him becoming a millionaire art collector!) But she said that the damage was so severe that a restoration would change the painting. It would be a collaboration between Frouchtben and the restorer. That was stinging, although hardly surprising because I had wondered before how one could really restore it given that it has very large gaps, especially in the rendering of the focus of the painting: the World War I soldier on top of a giant bird (hawk?) on top of the capital building.
What I would now like to do is have the painting cleaned and remounted. Even with all its damage, it is a very compelling painting. I would love to have it on the wall to look at. I think that is what Frouchtben deserves. And I keep coming back to something that John Fabian Kienitz wrote about him, “He has rare ability… He is a man worth saving.” Indeed he is.
And my fascination with him goes right along with what I admire so much in other works of art—from literature to music to painting. I love things that people create that could only be created by them. To me, Frouchtben is like Herman Melville. If it wasn’t for a fluke, Melville would today be considered a minor 19th century American writer. Moby-Dick was rightly ignored when it was first published; it is too idiosyncratic. The same could be said for Don Quixote, except that Cervantes was such a funny writer. All three men created works that were deeply personal, but Frouchtben got the usual treatment: few cared. But I still hold out the hope that this will not always be true. And there is precedent: a number of painters were ignored or dismissed for hundreds of years before people noticed that they were great.
From here, I plan to contact museums and galleries all over the nation (especially in the northeast) and find out if they have any Bernard Frouchtben. It would be nice to at least write a magazine article about the man and get some more examples of his work. I would love for the world to know about this man. But if I am very honest, I will admit that my ultimate goal is for myself to know more about this great artist. And all the time and effort of going to the Antiques Roadshow was a small price to pay to get just a little more information about the man and his work—even if it is mostly a null result.
For those interested in the financial side of things. The expert said it would probably cost about $2,500 to properly restore it. But because of the extensiveness of the restoration and how it would in large part harm Frouchtben’s work, it would only be worth about $1,000. That is why I would like to do only what can be done to make what remains the best that it can be. But even that is going to cost more than the painting would probably sell for. But I still think it is worth it.