BUDAPEST – An avant-garde painting lost for nine decades until a Hungarian researcher spotted it being used as a prop in the Hollywood film “Stuart Little” sold for over €200,000 on Saturday at an auction in Budapest.
“Sleeping Lady with Black Vase,” by Robert Bereny (1887-1953), fetched a price of €229,500 ($285,700).
The Virag Judit auction house said the buyer was an unnamed private Hungarian collector.
“I always knew it was a masterpiece, now it seems the market agrees,” said Gergely Barki, 43, the Hungarian National Gallery researcher who noticed the painting in the 1999 kids’ movie about a mouse as he watched TV with his daughter Lola on Christmas Eve six years ago.
The work disappeared in the late 1920s, but Barki recognized it immediately even though he had only ever seen a faded black-and-white photo dating from a 1928 exhibition catalog archived in the National Gallery.
San Francisco-based filmmaker Lidia Szajko, grandchild of Bereny and his second wife, Eta, who features in the painting, said she wished her grandfather were alive to enjoy the attention.
A former owner, Californian art dealer Michael Hempstead, said he recalled buying the painting for around $40 (32 euros) at a Catholic Church charity auction in San Diego in the late 1990s.
He sold it soon after for around $400 to an antiques shop in Pasadena, where it was picked up by a Hollywood studio set designer to use as a prop on soap operas and movies.
“It doesn’t bother me that it is worth a huge amount now,” Hempstead said by telephone. “I am happy to have been a part of the painting’s voyage to the big screen and back to Hungary,” he said.
The owner of the painting during the decades before Hempstead bought it remains a mystery.
According to Barki, the buyer in the late 1920s was probably Jewish and left Hungary before or during World War II.
“After the wars, revolutions, and tumult of the 20th century many Hungarian masterpieces are lost, scattered around the world,” he said.
Bereny, a leading figure in a pre-World War I avant-garde movement called the “Group of Eight,” was a friend of Austrian pyschoanalyst Sigmund Freud and held exhibitions in Paris with French painter Henri Matisse.
After designing recruitment posters for Hungary’s short-lived communist revolution in 1919, he fled to Berlin, where he had a romance with actress Marlene Dietrich.
He painted the now-famous work on his return to Budapest after being granted an amnesty by the government in 1926.