Trash or Treasure: Mystery surrounds Rivera-like canvas

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

It could be authentic. It could also be the work of a student trying to imitate the artist’s style.  That was the upshot of a recent appraisal of a canvas that closely resembled the work of well-known painter Diego Rivera. Brian Thomczek delivered the verdict at a recent appraisal session held at the Michigan Design Center in Troy.

Dan McGraw with his painting of unknown origin.

Dan McGraw, who brought the piece in, gave some background in his original email to the column supporting his hope that the painting was authentic and asking for advice and a value.

“In 1931, prior to his stay in Detroit, Diego Rivera created a portable mural in New York City for the Museum of Modern Art. The mural was made of reinforced concrete and galvanized steel. It stands five feet tall by eight feet long. “Sugarcane” as it became known tested the injustices of an agrarian society. It features a sugarcane plantation with it owner, an overseer with whip and pistol, Mexican laborers sacking cane while a mother and her children cut and gather papayas.

While in NYC, Rivera made friends with an American and a Soviet photographer. Together they discussed “depth of field” and Rivera used it purposely for the first time with “Sugarcane.” He showed a foreground interest that leads your eye into the painting until you reached a spot where a dog leads you to the background. The portable mural is currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

I own an unsigned portrait study of the little girl who is seen holding a basket in the foreground of the mural. Before retiring I owned a picture-framing store in downtown Rochester. A customer came in to pick out a frame for it but decided that she wouldn’t know where to hang it and as she left the store she shoved it into a trashcan. I rescued it and placed it on a shelf where it stayed for three or so years. I knew it was the style of Rivera and so I began researching it. I brought it to be inspected by the late Frank Boos from the Antique Roadshow. He was excited to see the painting but without provenance he could not authenticate it. So every five years or so I would begin a search for its origin. A year ago, while visiting the web site of the Philadelphia Museum of Art the “Little girl” jumped out at me.

 My painting is on canvas that I restretched on its original stretcher bars to take out a wrinkle. I also framed it with a beautiful black Larsen-Juhl frame with a silver liner. I know that portrait studies are often left unsigned; in fact Rivera only signed about 75 percent of his work.

Thomczek started by listing some facts. “This is definitely an early 20th-century canvas,” he said about the material. But there were a few things that made him doubt. “There is more detail in the dress in the original,” he explained. “If you had more of a provenance it would make an appraisal so much easier.”

He said that without one, it’s difficult to give any definitive answers. “Many times art students would study a particular section of a better-known work and copy it,” he explained. “This could be an example of that.”

He said it would take a Rivera expert to tell him for sure. “Museums would be very helpful but they can’t give monetary values,” he said. “They might be able to help with attribution.”

“It is a very interesting piece and the resemblance is indeed striking,” he said. “If worst comes to worst, you still have a nice painting,” he said, estimating its worth as $80 to $100. 

McGraw isn’t giving up just yet. “I’ve had this for years and I’d really like some answers. I guess I’ll have to go to Philadelphia.”

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. Letters are edited for style and clarity. Photos cannot be returned.

About this item

Item: Oil on canvas

Owned by: Dan McGraw

Appraised by: Brian Thomczek

Estimated value: $80 and up