August 15, 2014 at 1:00 am

Trash or Treasure?

WWII soldier's portrait to get a new home

Kelly Cronin with the African-American WWII soldier portrait she plans to donate. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

About a decade ago, Kelly Cronin of Grosse Pointe Farms came across a portrait of an African-American soldier from World War II at an antiques shop on Mack Avenue in Detroit. She was intrigued and purchased it for approximately $20.

“The painting looks as if it may have been painted on tent canvas,” she wrote in her description of the piece asking for more information. “It is framed, signed and dated 1945. On the back, written in pencil, it says, ‘To Mother, From Your Son in France, Painted and Framed by German Prisoner of War,’ and is dated 1945. There are a few other illegible marks.

“I think it has historical value and is really a lovely portrait,” she continued. “I am unsure of the moral and ethical implications of POW art and whether or not it should be sold. I would happily donate it to a museum if it had historical value.”

DuMouchelle appraiser Richard Fedorowicz, who took a look at the item during a recent appraisal session downtown, says he believes the medium to be pencil, not paint. “This doesn’t look like it’s an oil to me,” he told her. “That would fit with the conditions it was probably created in, which wouldn’t have allowed a lot of time for a lengthier portrait.”

He did say that there is strong interest in World War II and its artifacts. There is also a growing body of collectors who look for African-American pieces as a specialty, so there would probably be interest in the piece if she were to decide to sell it. His attempts to find similar works online proved fruitless, although he did find some other watercolors of soldiers and examples of trench art, which was work done to pass the time during the war. He found pieces that sold from $50 to $150 at auction, but none that were directly comparable to the one Cronin brought in.

“None of these examples are exactly like what you have, so it makes it hard to give you an accurate number,” he told her. “If you could identify the person in the portrait, that would help, especially if the person was of any historical interest. At auction, this is the kind of thing we would put up and see what happens. It’s really hard to tell what the market value might be. We’d have to let the people decide.”

But it turns out people won’t get the chance. Cronin says she’s been approached by the New Orleans’ National World War II museum (nationalww2museum.org), which wants to add the piece to its collection. According to its website, the museum has been voted the No. 1. place to learn U.S. military history by USA Today. Cronin has decided to donate it.

Fedorowicz says her desire to rescue the soldier from anonymity was admirable.

“He was alone in the antique shop, so I wanted to save him,” she said.

About this item

Object: World War II portrait

Owner: Kelly Cronin

Estimated value: Undetermined

Appraised by: Richard Fedorowicz, DuMouchelle’s

Do you have an object you would like to know more about? Send a photo and description that includes how you acquired the object to: The Detroit News, Trash or Treasure?, 615 W. Lafayette Blvd., Detroit, MI 48226. Include your name and daytime telephone number. You may also send your photo and description to trashortreas@aol.com. If chosen, you’ll need to bring the items to an appraisal session. Photos cannot be returned.