Some People's Trash, Other People's Missing Million Dollar Masterpieces

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"Tres Personajes" (1970) by Mexican artist, Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991).
Oil on canvas with marble dust and sand worked into the paint.

Image: Sotheby's [slightly larger view].

I am one of those people who pokes through other people's garbage in search of treasures. This isn't difficult to do in Manhattan because people conveniently discard their trash on the sidewalk, where garbage men come to pick it up at some point during the day. My favorite place to look through trash is on Manhattan's Upper West Side (UWS) because the people of the UWS discard the best items -- things that I could not afford to buy used, so when I find these things in the trash, I adopt them for free.

So given that scenario, it is easy to imagine myself poking around in the garbage for treasures on a Saturday morning on the UWS and running across something like the painting shown above. I can guarantee you that, had I run across that painting in the garbage, I would have enthusiastically adopted it because I think it is simply gorgeous.

Apparently, I am not the only one who loves this painting.

It turns out that this painting is the missing masterpiece, "Tres Personajes", by Mexican artist, Rufino Tamayo. It is reported to be worth as much as one million dollars.

The painting was originally purchased in 1977 for $55,000 by a man in Houston, Texas, as a gift for his wife. When the couple was moving in 1987, they placed the painting in a Texas storage facility and later returned to discover that it had been stolen. Despite an ongoing investigation by the FBI and other authorities, no leads were found: the painting had mysteriously vanished without a trace.

But one fine morning autumn in 2003, Elizabeth Gibson was walking to her local coffee shop 0n Manhattan's UWS when she spied a lovely painting leaning up against a fire hydrant on the street. Its obvious beauty was only intensified because it was standing on a pile of garbage. Even though she later claims she doesn't know anything about art, Gibson liked this painting's power and brought it home.

"I just knew it meant something. ... It was extremely powerful, and even though I didn't understand it, I knew it had power," said Gibson.

After spending the intervening years searching for information about this painting, she learned of its value when her research led her to the Web site of "Antiques Roadshow FYI," where it had been featured on the "Missing Materpieces" segment. Soon afterwards, the painting's identity was verified and the original owner was notified that her painting had been recovered. The original owner, whose husband had died, decided to sell it because the emotional trauma of losing the painting the first time had exhausted her. What happened to this painting during the two decades that it was missing, and how it came to be in a garbage pile on the UWS of Manhattan is anybody's guess. But the painting is in remarkably good shape, despite its adventures.

According to Sotheby's, the painting could bring in as much as $1 million when it is sold at its Latin American Art auction on November 20. Other Tamayo works have sold for huge sums recently; for example, his 1955 "America (Mural)'' fetched a record $2.59 million at Christie's International in New York in 1993. Christie's also has a major Tamayo for sale next month, the 1945 "Trovador,'' estimated to go for as much as $3 million.

Gibson will receive the $15,000 reward the couple put up when it was stolen, plus an undisclosed percentage of the sale of the painting. Perhaps not surprisingly, this adventure has inspired her to begin writing a book.


BBCNews (quote).

BloombergNews (depth).

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Strange what people throw away!?

Though it isn't what I would buy I tend to give first refusal on stuff I no longer need to local charities, if they don't want it only then does it get binned.

Odd how tatstes differ, from the photo the picture looks interesting, not sure I'ld give it houseroom though.

By Chris' Wills (not verified) on 24 Oct 2007 #permalink

What a great story! The painting is very striking. I can imagine I wouldn't have wanted to leave it to the rubbish man. I'm so curious to know why it was thrown away!