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17th Century Masterpiece Found in Australian School

Updated: May 15, 2022

A still life went unnoticed at an Australian school for 150 years and is worth millions.

Still life painting of a half eaten pie, some nuts and a glass of wine
Credit: National Trust of Australia (NSW)

A painting of a half-eaten pie and some nuts gathered dust in an Australian school for around 150 years. Today, researchers reckon it may be worth millions. Painted on two oak panels, the work was unearthed among a collection of 60,000 pieces after the Woodford Academy, a 19th-century school, was gifted to the National Trust of Australia in New South Wales.

It was one of 36 works of art sent to conservators after the organization appealed to the public for art restoration funds. While removing varnish during the cleaning process, restorers discovered a small signature cut into the wood with a knife. The writing was later attributed to Dutch painter Gerrit Willemsz. Heda, who was active in Haarlem in the 17th century.

Titled Still Life, the work may have been painted in collaboration with Heda’s father, Willem Claesz. Heda, a prominent artist from the Dutch Golden Age. Both father and son were known for their still lifes; experts are still investigating the possibility that they produced the piece together.

“To find an authentic 17th century painting in my storeroom at the National Trust was beyond exciting - it left me breathless,” said Rebecca Pinchin, the collections manager for the organization. “This is a remarkable story of discovery which has taken us on a journey across a number of years, piecing together and validating the work through expert advice and technology.”

The Australian Associated Press estimates the painting’s new attribution could push its value to $5 million (US$3.6 million).

One of the biggest mysteries it poses is how the 1640 work ended up in Australia to begin with. Researchers hypothesize that by the 1830s, Dutch pictures were fashionable there. One possibility is that Still Life was acquired by Alfred Fairfax, a member of a prominent Australian family who bought the Woodford House - an inn that later became a private school - in the 1870s.

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