The Most Expensive Painting Appraised On Antiques Roadshow

One of the greatest and most relatable things about "Antiques Roadshow" is the reactions; people toting belongings either passed down from ancestors or maybe something optimistically purchased at a second-hand shop, only to have their minds blown by the appraiser specializing in their belongings' area. Often, sadly, the mind-blowing is not the kind they'd hoped for, resulting in those aforementioned reactions being: "Oh. Um. Wow. That's so ... great," as a saddened facial expression belies the words. Many of us probably have one or two items we secretly think will be so valuable as to provide a safety net when we really need it, and hopefully, we'll be right! One best-case scenario happened for a Texas man.

In 2012, PBS's "Antiques Roadshow" visited Corpus Christi, Texas, where a man brought an oil painting that had been in his family for more than 80 years. His great-grandparents had bought the painting around 1930, most likely in Mexico. It was a depiction of a serious man looking straight at the viewer, wearing a poncho and sombrero-style hat, holding a long tool of some sort, and standing by a small bucket or pail. The painting's owner told the appraiser, Colleene Fesko, that the painting had been hanging behind a door in his house, and that when the door was open, the painting couldn't be seen. To which Fesko replied, "Oh dear."

A Missing Piece of Art History

The painting turned out to be "El Albañil" ("The Bricklayer"), an early work of renowned Latin-American artist Diego Rivera, who had been just 18 when he painted the piece shown on "Antiques Roadshow." Appraiser Colleene Fesko said that there were only three or four of Rivera's paintings from that early time period in Rivera's career, and that one of the things that made the piece so interesting is that it foreshadowed his technique of what would become the subject of so many of his portraits and murals: "workers of Mexico," as Fesko says in the show. Fesko said that "El Albañil" was listed in the Mexican City records as "missing" after 1930, presumably when the man's great-grandparents purchased it.

In 1996, "El Albañil" would briefly resurface to the public over 60 years after it went missing, when it was authenticated and exhibited. The San Antonio Museum of Art said that one Rugeley Ferguson, Sr. brought the painting to Marion Oettinger, the museum's curator. Ferguson told Oettinger that his family had acquired it in the 1940s, and at the time an expert had told them it was a fake, due to Rivera's signature; as Fesko had noted in the "Antiques Roadshow" clip, it was different because Rivera had been so young, and hadn't yet formalized his signature. Also, when the "expert" had seen the painting, it was badly damaged with a big gash in the canvas.

The Trifecta

By coincidence, the San Antonio Museum's curator, Marion Oettinger, had apparently received a book about Diego Rivera's early works around the same time she was introduced to "El Albañil." Oettinger immediately recognized, on another painting in that book, the unusual signature she'd seen on the piece that Rugely Ferguson in Sr. had brought to her in 1996. Then in 1997 an expert on Rivera's paintings, Ramon Favela, was able to authenticate "El Albañil" and ensure it got a proper restoration before it went on to a starring role in 1998 at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art. That seems to be the last that the whereabouts of "El Albañil" were known, as after that, it somehow ended up behind that door that we mentioned earlier.

Time-jumping now to 2012, Colleene Fesko is there on "Antiques Roadshow," standing before "El Albañil" which had been lost, and found, and then lost again. She confirmed that the restoration had been excellent, and told the man, "The painting itself is by a very important artist, it has a terrific history of being purchased in Mexico in 1930, and it's a very beautiful and important painting. So, trifectas usually pay pretty well. I would be putting a retail estimate on the piece of between $800,000 and $1 million."

'Now I'm really scared to carry it around.'

And so here we are, back to the reactions that we love so much: This time, the man's eyebrows shot up and into "Antiques Roadshow" history as the most expensive appraisal of a painting on the cozy show — and in 2018, an updated appraisal put the retail value even higher, at $1.2 – $2.2 million. His "Unbelievable – I did not expect that. I'm astounded. I really don't know what to say," seemed genuine, indeed.

In a follow-up interview on Twin Cities PBS, the owner was asked what he was planning to do with the painting, now that he knew its history, significance, and value. "Now I'm really scared to carry it around," he said. He then stated that because of the painting's importance, he thought that it should go to a museum "where everybody can look at it." And so, it went on permanent loan back to the San Antonio Museum of Art.

Check behind your doors, people!