Treasure: Watercolor mystery just may be solved

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News
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Antiques expert and appraiser Bob DuMouchelle likes a mystery as well the next person – especially ones he is eventually able to solve. “Sometimes appraisals need a lot more digging than I initially have time for,” he told Janette Tomes of Woodhaven at a recent Trash or Treasure event held at his downtown auction house and gallery. “This one is intriguing, so I kept looking and hoping something would turn up.”

The item in question was a watercolor she had picked up at a consignment shop in New Jersey. Framed in gilded wood, the frame was a bit broken around the edges but the image of a seascape attracted her attention. She paid $40 for it and wondered about its subject and value, something she was hoping DuMouchelle could help determine. “I knew the frame was messed up but I liked it,” she explained to the appraiser. “And, of course, I wondered if it was real or a copy.”

First, he told it is indeed a real watercolor, not a print or photo-mechanical copy, as many turn out to be. From there, however, the facts proved a bit more elusive. Signed in the lower left-hand corner with what appears to read “BJ Harnett” or “BI Harnett,” DuMouchelle searched both on the Internet, coming away with varying results.

One find was an artist with the same last name that worked often with images of the Hudson River School, another was a British painter that lived and worked from 1847 to 1914. He also mentioned that there was an artist named William M. Harnett, who is “a big name” artist, but that he doubted Tomes’ piece could be traced to him.

Sales results revealed few clues, DuMouchelle told her. “There was a watercolor by B.J. Harnett that sold for $100 online, but it seems ridiculously cheap. It could be one of those cases of ‘would the real B.J. Harnett please step forward?’” he quipped. As the work of an unknown artist, he initially said her piece would command somewhere around $200-$400.

But good things sometimes come to those who wait. Because she was interested in watching the other appraisals at the Trash or Treasure event, Tomes stuck around. With more time, DuMouchelle was able to search a little longer and came across an image of an oil on canvas by B.J. Harnett that was listed in an older auction catalog. The 32-by-60 oil on canvas was listed with a $3,000-$5,000 auction estimate.

But it wasn’t the dollar amount that caught his attention – it was the image itself, which was credited as being “View of the Golden Gate” – before the bridge. The image looked very similar to the one that Tomes brought to the event, prompting DuMouchelle to revise his appraisal. Information accompanying the painting lead him to say there was a good chance the work was by the British artist he had found earlier, who was born in 1847 in England but later came to the United States. A landscape painter, he lived in California, Seattle, Washington and NYC. One of his paintings, a view of Seattle, is in the collection of the Museum of History and Industry in that city.

“If it could be proven for sure that this is a view of Golden Gate bridge area before the bridge was built, it would make it more interesting to collectors and would drive the price up to somewhere between $500-$800 at auction,” he told her. California painters and images are doing well at auction. “They’re hot right now,” he said.

Tomes was happy. “I paid $40,” she said. “Either way I did OK.”

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?, 160 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226. Include your name and daytime telephone number. You may also send your photo and description to If chosen you’ll need to bring the items to an appraisal session. Photos cannot be returned.


this item

Item: Watercolor

Owned by: Janette Tomes, Woodhaven

Appraised by: Bob DuMouchelle

Estimated value: $500-$800

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