Gergely Barki, a researcher at the Hungarian national gallery, didn't take long to notice that he had just seen a masterpiece.
Back in 2009, Barki was watching a film with his daughter, the 1999 Rob Minkoff Stuart Little starring Hugh Laurie, Geena Davis, Jonathan Lipnicki and with Michael J. Fox providing the voice of the famous mouse, when he couldn't believe what he was seeing. In one brief scene, hidden behind all the actors and the family hearth and above the mantle was a painting he suspected was a long lost masterpiece of Hungarian avant-garde artist Róbert Berény.
Berény was the leader of a pre-first world war avant garde movement called the Group of Eights, fled to Berlin in 1920 after designing recruitment posters for Hungary’s short-lived communist revolution in 1919. In the German capital, he kept a busy romantic life. Berény had rumored affairs with Marlene Dietrich, and Anastasia, the mysterious daughter of Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Bereny’s long-lost masterpiece on the wall behind Hugh Laurie. I nearly dropped Lola from my lap,” said Barki, “ in an interview with Agence France-Presse A researcher can never take his eyes off the job, even when watching Christmas movies at home.”
Barki couldn't be sure it really was the Sleeping Woman With a Black Vase. He had only seen a black and white photograph of it from a 1928 exhibition. Besides it had been missing since the 1920's. Barki's research on the painting lead him to believe that the painting's last know owner was a Jewish art collector who fled Hungary before or after the rise of the German Nazi party in World War II. After that, Barki believed that Sleeping Woman With a Black Vase, had become a casualty of war.
Even after a second viewing of Stuart Little Barki was intrigued enough to do a little more research. He e-mailed the studio, Sony and Columbia, innumerable times. Finally, after almost two years of trying, his squeaky wheel tactics got a little grease in the form of a letter from a former set designer who worked on Stuart Little.
“She said the picture had been hanging on her wall,” Barki noted to Agence France-Passe.
“She had snapped it up for next to nothing in an antiques shop in Pasadena, California, thinking its avant garde elegance was perfect for Stuart Little’s living room.”
After leaving the studio, the designer sold the painting to an art collector. The collector in a sudden attack of conscience and probably not wanting to deal with such a hot art potato decided to put Sleeping Woman With a Black Vase up for auction with Hungarian based auction house Virag Judit.
The starting price €110,000 (£87,000) or about $150,000 U.S.
After the wars, revolutions and tumult of the 20th century, many Hungarian masterpieces are lost, scattered around the world,” Barki noted.
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