On the afternoon of June 12, 2015, Mac Shafer carried some deeply personal cargo in the back seat of his Ford F-150 as he drove home to Mineral Wells.
That morning, 58-year-old Shafer, an avid art collector, had retrieved four favorite paintings he had loaned to Dallas’ Museum of Biblical Art. He had one more stop to make.
He swept past the rounded arches of the Kimbell Art Museum’s stately entrance, headed for an appointment with two of the Fort Worth museum’s most senior officials. Not in their offices. But in the museum’s underground garage.
Kimbell director Eric M. Lee and deputy director George T. M. Shackelford walked toward Shafer’s parked truck. They were intrigued by him for several reasons: He had approached them through the powerful recommendation of his friend Alice Walton, one of the Kimbell’s most loyal supporters and one of the world’s wealthiest women. And Shafer was convinced he had some interesting art to exhibit at the museum.
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Using a trashcan as a display area, Shafer presented the canvases, which had a consistent religious theme. And one by one, Lee and Shackelford showed polite, if muted, enthusiasm for their quality.
Except for painting No. 3.
An oil sketch of a European church, the work portrayed a somewhat gloomy Romanesque interior, a Gothic arch and a tabernacle rising over the altar. It bore the date 1841 and the signature “D. Roberts” — David Roberts, a somewhat renowned 19th-century Scottish painter. Shafer had purchased the work, sold as Roberts’ Interior of Cathedral, in 2004.
Upon seeing this painting, Shackelford and Lee lost interest in the other pieces. Shackelford immediately snapped four iPhone shots of it.
Of all the paintings Eric and I saw that day in the garage, it was the only one that had spark
George Shackelford, Kimbell deputy director
“Both Eric and I noticed the quality of the brushwork was so high, so assured,” recalls Shackelford. “Of all the paintings Eric and I saw that day in the garage, it was the only one that had spark.”
They had an inkling that there might be more to this painting than met the eye.
And thus, in that 35-minute parking-garage meeting began one of the most improbable acquisitions of an important work in the Kimbell’s 44-year history — one that involved mistaken identity, careful forensic work and a bit of serendipity.
A happy accident
From the beginning, Lee and Shackelford were suspicious that this painting signed “David Roberts” was not at all a David Roberts painting. It was not a typical work by Roberts, who was best known for his Middle Eastern subjects.
In fact, Lee thought it looked more like the work of an infinitely more important artist, Richard Parkes Bonington.
Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-1828) was a revered 19th-century British Romantic painter, comparable in artistic stature to J.M.W. Turner and John Constable.
One of the Kimbell’s first acquisitions under Lee’s direction, in 2009, was a Bonington oil sketch called The Grand Canal, Venice, Looking Toward the Rialto, which is part of the museum’s permanent collection.
Lee has always held a special fondness for Bonington’s work.
“He just speaks to me,” he says. “There is this freshness about his paintings, with their light and handling of paint — just such a jewel-like quality. Nobody, as far as I’m concerned, was as much a virtuoso as Bonington was in painting light.
“I remember thinking that it looked so much like a Bonington,” Lee recalls of first seeing the mysterious painting. “There was something in that oil sketch artist’s utter confidence and complete control over the medium.”
Then, a clue.
A week after seeing Shafer’s painting, Shackelford went online to identify a watercolor of a Venetian palace. He thought of Bonington, who had done some of his finest watercolors in Venice. “I remember typing ‘Bonington and watercolors,’ ” Shackelford says.
“In the center of one of the image rows was a watercolor with exactly the same composition as Shafer’s ‘David Roberts.’ ”
Shackelford traced the link on that watercolor to London’s Wallace Collection, which attributed it to Bonington as Interior of Sant’ Ambrogio, Milan — a church scene with all the elements of Shafer’s “David Roberts” church subject.
Bonington was known to work up oil sketches to use as the basis for a later studio watercolor or oil.
“I saw that the watercolor and the painting ‘matched,’ ” Shackelford says.
Although the “Roberts” in Fort Worth was an oil painting and the Wallace Collection’s Bonington was a watercolor, the match made sense — Bonington was known to work up oil sketches to use as the basis for a later studio watercolor or oil.
“Then by extension, the painting had to be connected to the watercolor,” Shackelford says. “Figuring out how was the next step.”
He sent the Wallace Collection photograph to Lee.
“I immediately noticed that the overall composition of the Bonington watercolor was so similar to the ‘David Roberts’ oil sketch church interior,” Lee says.
Indeed, the similarities — the church interior subject matter, the people in its foreground, the beams of light — continued to tantalize Shackelford and Lee.
“Looking back, it was such a one-in-a-million, pure accident that I would see this Bonington watercolor at the Wallace Collection and make the connection to Shafer’s painting,” Shackelford says. “It’s not that I’m so smart, it was just that the accident happened to me.”
But forensic work would be needed to confirm their suspicions.
Lee called Shafer and asked him to bring the painting back to the Kimbell.
“I can still hear him saying very excitedly that he thought the Roberts I had was a lost painting and that he was very anxious for me to bring it back in so the museum could do more research on it,” Shafer says.
When it arrived, the museum’s director of conservation, Claire Barry, began to examine it. During a cursory cleaning, she lifted off the “D. Roberts 1841” inscription. That the signature could so easily be removed from its outer varnish layer indicated that it was likely forged by an unscrupulous art dealer.
By faking the Roberts signature in 1841, they thought they could get more money at auction
Claire Barry, Kimbell director of conservation
“In looking into the provenance of the ‘David Roberts’ work,” recalls Barry, “we discovered that the collector of this then-unsigned piece thought it must be a David Roberts because he was known to occasionally paint church interiors. And by faking the Roberts signature in 1841, they thought they could get more money at auction.”
Using X-radiography and infrared images, she compared the bold blocking of all the architectural elements used by Bonington in the Kimbell’s Grand Canal, Venice canvas with the same strong blocking for the interior of the “Roberts.”
Both works showed the same use of a squared-off brush and lead white paint, she says, and delicate brush detail was similar.
“The artist in both works was clearly so confident and very rapid with his brush strokes,” she says. “Those strokes are like the fingerprints of an artist. When you put the Kimbell’s Bonington together with Shafer’s ‘Roberts,’ it was clear they were both done by the same hand.”
Those [brush]strokes are like the fingerprints of an artist
Claire Barry, Kimbell director of conservation
Barry’s forensic work also revealed that both works shared a specific brand of millboard used to support the canvases. Millboard was a convenient support used by 19th-century painters when painting outdoor oil sketches.
Her finding was confirmed by Patrick Noon, the Elizabeth MacMillan Chair of Paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the world’s foremost Bonington expert.
“While in Italy, Bonington was clearly painting on this millboard surface,” Noon says. “Bonington favored millboard, especially for his oil sketches, because of its portability and flexibility.”
In a recent interview, Noon offered another bit of intriguing information.
“ Bonington never signed his oil sketches,” Noon says. “So it is likely that the owner or dealer of this unsigned work decided to put David Roberts’ name and date in a specific attempt to deceive. … It couldn’t be Roberts. It didn’t even look like his signature.”
While Barry conducted forensic examinations, Lee did some detective work. He found in Noon’s catalog of Bonington’s work a reproduction of the watercolor of the Sant’ Ambrogio, Milan church interior, based on an untraced oil sketch. Lee also read Noon’s account of Bonington’s time in Milan where personal letters mention making oil sketches of the nocturnal lighting effect on the interior of a church.
I began hyperventilating. I called up Patrick Noon to tell him that we might have discovered a rare Bonington painting
Kimbell director Eric M. Lee
“I began hyperventilating,” Lee says. “I called up Patrick Noon to tell him that we might have discovered a rare Bonington painting.”
Noon vividly remembers that call from Lee.
“When Eric said the Kimbell had found this Bonington oil sketch, I was in a bit of disbelief because a painting by an artist like that doesn’t necessarily walk in off the streets of Texas,” Noon says.
In fact, it had taken a long and winding road to Shafer’s home in Mineral Wells.
According to a Christie’s number on the painting, it was first sold as a Roberts work titled Serving Mass at Christie’s in London in 1946. Another label shows it went to auction again in 1995, in Stockholm. The work was later acquired by a collector who consigned it to auction in New Orleans in 2003 as Roberts’ Interior of Cathedral, but it went unsold.
That year, Shafer — who began collecting art seriously after retiring from the oil and gas business — paged through a catalog from the Neal Auction Co. of New Orleans when his eye caught an interior church scene painted by David Roberts. He immediately contacted the auction house and learned the work had been shipped back to its original owner, Leonard Walley, in nearby Garland.
In April 2004, the men met to look at the Roberts painting in a mutually convenient location: the parking lot of Fort Worth’s Railhead Smokehouse.
Shafer purchased the painting as ‘Interior of Cathedral,’ by David Roberts, for $3,800 from a Garland collector in 2004.
“I took one look at that David Roberts painting and I didn’t dicker one moment over the price,” Shafer recalls. “I wrote him a check for $3,800 — literally what he asked for it — because I knew I wanted that painting.”
Shafer took it home and hung it in his Mineral Wells office for years, until 2009, when he loaned it and three other religious-themed works to Dallas’ Museum of Biblical Art — where they were on display for six years, until the day last summer when he drove it to the Kimbell.
The final sale
As evidence mounted that Shafer’s “Roberts” was a long-lost and much coveted Bonington, Noon flew to Fort Worth to examine the work.
“Clearly, this painting showed Bonington’s style of execution,” Noon says. “He was just so wonderfully facile in how quickly he put the paint down, with such assurance.”
The team determined that Shafer’s “David Roberts” work was, indeed, Richard Bonington’s The Interior of Sant’ Ambrogio, Milan, 1826.
According to art market sources, the Kimbell paid under $1 million, about $2.8 million less than what was reportedly paid at a Christie’s auction last July for a major Bonington coastal landscape.
Once Noon gave the Bonington his final imprimatur, the Kimbell purchased it from Shafer in December. According to art market sources, the Kimbell paid under $1 million, or approximately $2.8 million less than what was reportedly paid at a Christie’s auction last July for a major Bonington coastal landscape.
Both of the Kimbell’s Boningtons are on view in the Kahn Building’s north galleries.
“It’s just so incredible that this mysterious oil sketch, that I knew existed but I just didn’t know where, would show up in Texas,” Noon says.
Lee can’t conceal his excitement that this lost Bonington found a new home at a museum that already houses its aesthetic twin.
“Since we already had in The Grand Canal, Venice a classic Bonington subject,” Lee says, “now with this atypical Bonington subject — a church interior — we have two works from Bonington’s Italian journeys. I mean, wow, how great is that?”
Reflecting back on all the twists and turns of obtaining the Bonington, Lee is all but giddy: “I’ve frankly never had an experience like it,” he admits. “Of all the artists to be involved, that it should be Bonington is especially thrilling — especially when everything falls into place like it did.”
Shafer, a collector with an uncommonly sharp eye for a masterpiece, was moved to see his Bonington hanging in the hallowed walls of perhaps his favorite museum.
“It really was a dream come true,” Shafer says, “because I so love art and to see my painting that I had in my collection since 2004 hanging at the Kimbell, all cleaned, well, that’s simply amazing.”
Kimbell Art Museum
- 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth
- Both Bonington paintings are on display in the Kahn Building’s north galleries. Admission is free.