Trash or Treasure: Scottish artist depicted royal estate

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

Helen Jane Peters was lucky to know quite a bit about a piece she recently brought in to the Michigan Design Center for appraisal. Expert Brian Thomczek was happy to hear the background she shared -- what is known in the business as “provenance” – adding that it can be useful both in dating an item and in determining its value.

“My father, James A. Spark was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1905,” Peters wrote in an email asking for advice about an art work in her possession. “He immigrated to the U. S. with his parents, Alexander and Nellie Spark in 1910. I believe my grandfather may have been recruited by Henry Ford to come to Detroit as he worked for Ford for many years. When my aunt…passed away in 1993, she left this painting to me in her will. In reading my aunt’s will, it mentions that the painting is an “original.”  I’m wondering if the painting started out at my grandparents’ home and they left it to my aunt? But this is a guess on my part. The painting is of an area near Balmoral Castle where Queen Elizabeth resides for holidays.”

Helen Jane Peters displays her water color painting.

Technically not an oil painting but a watercolor, the work is entitled “Evening on the Moor:  Lochnagar in the distance,” and depicts the royal estate of Balmoral Castle and a pastoral scene that includes a majestic mountain with 200-metre-high cliffs overlooking a small loch, she explained in the email and later to the appraiser, adding that in Gaelic, Lochnagar means “little loch of laughter and noise.”

Thomczek said that the work is signed in the lower right and he believes it to be an authentic and original piece. “I do think it is right, and that this is definitely a Scottish scene.”

He also said he had to do a bit of digging to find information about the artist, John Mitchell, who he said lived from 1837-1926. According to, the record for this artist at auction since 2000 is $13,786 USD for a view of Balmoral, which sold at Sotheby’s in Edinburgh in 2008.

Other Scottish scenes were found to have sold through the years, something that helped the appraiser give Peters a sense of the value of her piece, which he estimated would bring $2,000 to $3,000 at auction.

“Similar pieces have sold around 2,000 pounds in the U.K. and this is larger, so I’d give it the higher estimate,” he added. “It would be worth even more if it was indeed an oil, as watercolors are down a bit at the moment in value.”

It doesn’t matter, as Peters plans to keep it, adding that it’s a “very pleasing painting and that it “hangs over the fireplace in our “Scotland” room. It’s very special to me, as all of my relatives on my father’s side were born in Scotland.”

About these items

Item: Watercolor

Owned by: Helen Jane Peters

Appraised by: Brian Thomczek

Estimated value: $2,000 to $3,000 at auction

We are currently accepting applications for our next free appraisal to be held in August at DuMouchelles – date and time to be determined. If you would like to be considered, please send a photo of your item, how you acquired it, and any story behind it that you are aware of to We will be in touch with dates and details if you are chosen. We are also accepting collectors to be featured in our regular Collectors Spotlight – if you are interested, let us know what you collect and why and send a few photos of your collection. If you are selected, we will be in touch for more additional information.