NEW YORK - On November 20, 2007, Sotheby’s will auction a miraculously recovered stolen masterpiece by legendary Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991). Tres Personajes, the 1970 painting stolen over twenty years ago and featured on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow FYI was found on a New York City street by New Yorker, Elizabeth Gibson, out for her morning coffee. Ms. Gibson noticed and rescued the painting from between garbage bags set out for morning collection, unaware that it had any significance until much later. “I know nothing of modern art but it didn’t seem right for any piece of art to be discarded like that,” she said. Tres Personajes, from 1970, is a painting of great importance in Tamayo’s body of work, representative of the artist’s mature period, and is estimated to sell for $750,000/1 million. A highlight of Sotheby’s evening sale of Latin American Art, it will be exhibited in Sotheby’s 10th floor galleries from Saturday, November 17th until Tuesday November 20th.
The sale will be conducted by Sotheby’s August Uribe, whose continuing quest to find the lost masterpiece intersected with Ms. Gibson’s slowly growing sense of the importance of what she had found. Mr. Uribe suggested to Antiques Roadshow FYI that they feature the painting in their Missing Masterpieces segment. Without that broadcast, one of Ms. Gibson’s intermittent Google™ searches of the “Tamayo” signature on the painting would not have turned up the identifying reference, which led her to return the painting to its owner via Sotheby’s. Indeed, had not the photo of the painting happened to have been selected as one of the website’s illustrations, Ms. Gibson would not have been able to confirm that her find was probably a missing masterpiece.
Tres Personajes was purchased by the current owner at a Modern Paintings sale at Sotheby’s New York thirty years ago on May 11, 1977, and then stolen in the fall of 1987. The owners reported the theft to the local and federal authorities in Houston, and the work was posted on the databases of the International Foundation for Art Research and the Art Loss Register, but these measures turned up no credible leads.
Immediately upon recovering the work, Sotheby’s contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Because of the cultural importance of Tres Personajes and its monetary value, and because it was transported in interstate commerce, the New York Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating the theft. Anyone with information about the theft, the transportation of the stolen painting, or its possession in New York is asked to call the FBI's Major Theft Squad at 718-286-7302.
Going on the PBS series in 2005 to publicize the search for this lost painting, Mr. Uribe made a plea for any information on the painting’s whereabouts. But two years had passed without a word when a woman, who declined to state her purpose, requested a meeting with him. “Just call me ‘Mystery Woman,’ ” she said. As he ushered her into a Sotheby’s conference room, she said, to his amazement, “I have the Tamayo you talked about on Antiques Roadshow.”
Ms. Gibson went on to explain that she had been so shocked to read that the painting had been stolen on the Antiques Roadshow FYI website, which she found through a Google™ search, that she felt compelled to see the actual broadcast. The series wasn’t available for purchase, Ms. Gibson recalled, but a fortuitous late-night Google™ search revealed that the episode was being rebroadcast in Baltimore the next day, where she went and saw it. “The moment I saw Augie on the Missing Masterpiece segment, I knew I could take it to him and everything would be alright.”
“This has been nothing short of a miracle,” said August Uribe. “The fact that such an important painting, missing for a generation, was rescued in this way – and in such pristine condition – continues to astound me. As soon as Elizabeth described the unique texture of the painting, I knew it was Tres Personajes.”
“He couldn’t seem to believe I was saying ‘I can take you to the painting right now,’ ” Ms. Gibson remembers. But Mr. Uribe had an auction to conduct in two hours and invited the “Mystery Woman” to stay. Ms. Gibson recalled that after the auction, “Augie pleaded for some kind of contact information, but instead, I promised I’d reappear the next day. He said, ‘I won’t sleep tonight.’ ”
The next day, she did return, and, said Mr. Uribe, “We got in a cab, and only then did she introduce herself. The suspense of that interminable ride was unbearable – but then finally, I saw the painting. I had hoped for that moment for twenty years, never thinking it would actually ever arrive.”
Sotheby’s then contacted the owner, who subsequently decided to sell the painting through the auction house.
“We’re delighted the Tamayo has been restored to its owner and proud that Antiques Roadshow FYI played such a pivotal role in its recovery,” said Antiques Roadshow executive producer Marsha Bemko. “Kudos to August Uribe and Sotheby’s for bringing us the segment and helping to fulfill Antiques Roadshow FYI’s public service mission.”
This painting is featured on the cover of the 1974 book by art historian Emily Genauer, Rufino Tamayo, the most important monograph in English addressing the artist’s career. The work was exhibited in a 1974-75 exhibition, Cent Oeuvres de Tamayo (One Hundred Works by Tamayo), in Paris at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and in Florence at the Palazzo Strozzi.
Tamayo was born in 1899 and began his career as a figurative painter when he was in his 20s. In the 1930’s, Tamayo began visiting New York, and he continued to travel between the United States and Mexico for much of his career. Tamayo’s lasting legacy to art history is the re-examination of Cubism and the explication of Mexico’s pre-Columbian history while incorporating elements of the mainstream movements of 20th century art. Tamayo is known for his vivid coloring and innovative use of texture, often incorporating sand and raw pigment into his works.
Painted in 1970, Tres Personajes is regarded as a masterpiece of the artist’s mature period, the synthesis and culmination of a career and a celebration of his approach to universalism in art via color, abstraction and texture.
Carmen Melián, Head of the Latin American Art department at Sotheby’s, said, “Tamayo introduced abstraction as a possibility in Mexican modernism at a time when the prevalent style was figurative work. Tamayo emphasized formalism while illustrating Mexico’s indigenous past, managing to combine aspects of the modern avant-garde with the language of the native Amerindian cultures, making use of the colors of Mexico in a modern way.”
Tamayo himself was an extensive collector of American post-war artists. One of his lasting legacies is the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City, which not only displays his works.