Trash or Treasure: Restaurant scenes popular in the 19th century

By Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

“We acquired it from my grandma’s estate,” Michele Graber told appraiser Brian Thomczek at a recent session held at the Michigan Design Center. “They traveled a lot but we don’t know where they bought this. I tried looking up the painter but couldn’t find any information,” she added.

Despite trying, Thomczek ultimately had the same luck gathering more information about the artist despite the small plaque on the piece that reads V. Orban and lists the title as “Defenceless.” (sic). The gold-framed work, an oil on canvas, appears to show a 19th-century restaurant scene and a waitress and an overly amorous customer, the appraiser told Graber and the people gathered for the recent event. “This guy definitely looks like he’s had one too many,” he added.

Michele Graber   poses with an   oil painting on canvas.

Thomczek said restaurant scenes such as Graber’s were popular in Europe at the time and that it’s possible hers was imported from either Hungary or France. Orban is a common Hungarian name, he added, and said that he would attribute hers to the “Hungarian School,” because he was unable to find any specific information about an artist by that name. “I looked everywhere but couldn’t find anything that would help us,” he explained.

The work, an oil on canvas, measures 20 ½ by 30. Graber told Thomczek that she had initially thought it was an oil on board. Thomczek explained that the work is an example of what’s known as “figural” or “figurative” art and that the genre was common and popular in the 19th century. The website explained “figurative art can be defined as any type of art where the subject matter is recognizable from the real world.”

What was seen as acceptable subject matter then may look different to modern eyes, however, the appraiser explained.  He added that for a variety of reasons, the market for figural paintings is “not great” at the moment. Because of this, he appraised Graber’s work at $375-$400 at auction.

He said the artist — whoever it was — was clearly skilled and well-trained and that the piece is in “remarkably good shape” overall. He told Graber that she should keep it if she likes it.

“I was attracted to the faces,” Graber told the appraiser. “It does draw you right in,” he agreed.

Despite this, Graber is downsizing and trying to decide what to do next. “My kids don’t want it,” she explained.

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About this item

Item: Oil on canvas

Owned by: Michele Graber

Appraised by: Brian Thomczek  

Estimated value: $375-$400