HUDSON — The phrase “hidden in plain sight” usually applies to hole-in-the-wall restaurants or little-known hiking trails, not centuries-old fine artwork found in a barn in Kinderhook with bird droppings on the back.
But that’s exactly how it happened for 90-year-old art collector Albert Roberts, who bought an oil sketch for $600 that turned out to be a never-before-seen early work of 17th-century Flemish painter Sir Anthony Van Dyck.
“I have what I call an orphanage for abandoned art,” Roberts said.
Roberts, a 15-year Hudson resident, obtained the sketch without knowing its origin or artist 20 years ago after it was reportedly found in a barn in Kinderhook. Through private research, art historian Rev. Dr. Susan Barnes published the panel as an authentic work by Van Dyck in the March 2021 edition of art history publication The Burlington Magazine.
The panel was determined to be a preparatory sketch for Van Dyck’s painting “St. Jerome,” which hangs at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. The panel will be on display at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls this month until Aug. 22, after which it will be reunited with the final painting at the Boijmans.
Roberts said the work is worth “many millions of dollars.” The auction record for a Van Dyck work is $13.5 million for a self-portrait sold in 2009, according to the website Art News.
The sketch depicts an elderly churchmen’s aging body and lost muscle tone after being in the wilderness. Based on the brush stroke technique on the man’s chest, Roberts said he could tell he had something precious. But his private research wasn’t fruitful until he realized he might have something no one knew existed.
“The one missing link as I did my research: I couldn’t find anything and it was becoming quite annoying, and then I realized I can’t find anything because it’s unknown. It’s not in the literature,” he said.
Jonathan Canning, director of curatorial affairs and programming at The Hyde Collection, said he knew The Hyde needed to show the panel after seeing it at the Albany Institute of History and Art, which mainly exhibits American paintings. But The Hyde has other works and oil sketches by Van Dyck and his mentor Peter Paul Rubens and is the only museum north of New York City that has that context, Canning said.
“We have two oil sketches by Peter Paul Rubens that we can put alongside the panel and therefore we create the context in which Van Dyck executed this piece,” Canning said.
Canning said the discovery of the panel was significant to the art world because it was created around 1618, when Van Dyck was emerging from his apprenticeship under the European master Rubens and coming into his own style at age 18. An oil sketch is prep work in which the artist can determine elements like composition and other details, Canning said.
“This is just helping us see how he emerges out of the studio of Rubens into becoming an independent artists. This has always been a very difficult period for art historians to understand the development of the young Van Dyck, and this just helps, this gives us a little more information,” Canning said.
Even more indicative of Van Dyck’s work is the use of a live model and a full-body depiction — and there are no known works by Rubens that have either quality, Canning said.
As for how the sketch made it to a barn in Kinderhook and later next to Roberts’ television, where he said it was kept, Canning said it’s tempting to think the work left Van Dyck’s possession early on and came to New York with the Dutch. But because there’s no record of it, it’s unclear, Canning said.
“It’s sort of floated as this sort of orphan with amnesia for a long time, but how it shows up in Kinderhook, we just can’t tell at this point,” Canning said.
Roberts said he insisted the bird droppings be kept on the back of the panel as proof it was kept somewhere with birds.
“They’re wonderful evidence,” Roberts said.
What’s more is that this isn’t Roberts’ first encounter of this kind with precious artwork — he said he slept with a genuine Henri Matisse, one of his first discoveries, over his bed for 27 years before discovering it was real, which he details in Roberts’ new book “Sleeping with Matisse,” scheduled for publication soon.
“There’s something about Albert that attracts these orphans to come out, show themselves,” Canning said.
After growing up during the Great Depression, Roberts said he wasn’t prepared for where his life would take him. When the painting is being shown in Rotterdam, Roberts said the museum could buy it.
“It never occurred to me that my fortune would be from art,” Roberts said.