In late August, an aspirational story flooded the internet: A New Hampshire couple bought a painting by N.C. Wyeth for $4 at a thrift store and sent it to auction, where it was expected to fetch $150,000 to $250,000. On September 19, Bonhams Skinner sold the work for $191,000. But the couple’s high hopes soon plummeted back down to earth — the buyer never paid.
N.C. Wyeth, the father of fellow American painter Andrew Wyeth, created the illustration for a 1939 edition of Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel Ramona. The painting depicts the book’s namesake protagonist with her stepmother. The complete provenance of the illustration is unknown, but by 2017, Wyeth’s “Ramona” (1939) had found its way into Manchester’s Savers thrift store.
That year, Tracy Donahue found the oil-on-panel work in a stack of paintings, forked over four dollar bills, and brought the work home to hang on her bedroom wall. Initially, she couldn’t find any information about the illustration online. When Donahue posted the painting to a Facebook group years later, she was connected with conservator Lauren Lewis, who was familiar with the artist’s work from her time at the Wyeth Study Center at Maine’s Farnsworth Art Museum. Lewis told Hyperallergic this summer that the painting was in “excellent condition” and that she was “99% sure it was authentic.” Bonhams Skinner agreed, and consigned the piece for its American Art sale.
The buyer had 35 days to pay after the hammer fell on September 19. In mid-October, the Donahues still hadn’t received their money, and eventually, Bonhams Skinner informed them that the Australia-based purchaser had refused to pay. Now, the work is back in the hands of Tracy and Tom Donahue, after what they described to the New York Times as the “biggest disappointment ever.”
Just how common is it for a buyer to renege on a sale? Hyperallergic has contacted Bonhams with this very question, in the hopes of preventing future sellers from booking pricey vacations before the deposit hits their bank account.