Treasure: Art lovely, but not work of famous artist

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

Kurt Lilley was trying to help his father-in-law. “My father-in-law, Dr. Charles Parrott, purchased this O Tanner painting in approximately 1973,” he wrote in an email asking for appraisal and assistance. “He paid $1,400. It was purchased at DuMouchelles. It hangs prominently in their home.”

Depicting a young boy before a charming girl on a swing, the piece is marked “O. Tanner.” The pair wondered if it could be the work of noted American painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner, whose work is in museums around the country, including “Flight from Egypt” at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Lilley and his in-laws, Charles and Betty Parrott, were curious enough about the work and its current value that they were willing to bring the large oil on canvas back down to where it was purchased, almost a half-century later, hoping for answers. Bob DuMouchelle would have been too young to work with the original purchase, but was happy to take a closer look at a recent appraisal session.

“Henry Ossawa Tanner had a variety of signatures,” he told Lilley and Parrott. “But he usually didn’t sign just O. Tanner. He usually wrote out Ossawa Tanner.”

Unfortunately for them, he did not think the piece could be traced to the well-known artist, who was born in Pittsburgh in 1859. According to the National Gallery of Art (, Henry Ossawa Tanner was “the first of five children born to Reverend Benjamin Tucker Tanner, a future bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Sarah Tanner, a former slave who had escaped on the Underground Railroad. Their son’s unusual middle name was derived from the name of the town Osawatomie, Kansas, where the abolitionist John Brown had initiated his antislavery campaign. The family settled in Philadelphia in 1868, and in 1879 Tanner enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he studied under the direction of Thomas Eakins. He began to exhibit at the Academy and at the Philadelphia Society of Artists.”

Tanner later moved to Paris, in part because it “provided a more liberal atmosphere free of the racial prejudice he had suffered in the country of his birth,” according to the National Gallery. Later works included both other African-American subjects as well as biblical scenes in the late 1890s, which brought him considerable acclaim.

“There are a few reasons I don’t think it’s his work,” DuMouchelle explained.

“Henry Ossawa Tanner died in 1937,” he said. “When I turn this piece over, the materials used don’t look like they’d date that far back. Secondly, Tanner’s works are fairly well known at this point, and there is no known Henry Ossawa Tanner work like this listed.”

He said while he couldn’t definitively say who painted his work, it is definitely of good quality. “Whichever Tanner did this painting, his work is really well done but not as old or as valuable as the work of the other Tanner, unfortunately.”

As is, DuMouchelle said the piece still has value and would bring $1,000-$2,000 at auction, more in a retail gallery. “It is a lovely work,” he complimented.

“I wish I could tell you this was indeed by Henry Ossawa Tanner,” he said. “We were all hoping it would be, but the canvas is just too new. If it was by him, it would bring hundreds of thousands instead... My advice would be to go home and hang it back on the wall and enjoy it.”

Lilley and Charles Parrott like it either way. “The girl on the swing looks a lot like his granddaughter,” Lilley said.

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this item

Item: Oil on canvas

Owned by: Charles and Betty Parrott

Appraised by: Bob DuMouchelle, DuMouchelles

Estimated value: $1,000-$2,000 at auction