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01 790 Benson not DSC 0071

Figure in a Room (Interior), 1912
Oil on canvas
Alix W. Stanley Fund, 1972.38

In 1972, the New Britain Museum of American Art purchased Frank Weston Benson's Figure in a Room, 1912. The painting had previously been owned for many years by the Detroit Club, a gentlemen's eating establishment in the automotive capital of the world. Falling on hard times, the Club sold the painting but in order to placate those members who were fond of it, a copy was made. The original frame, which bore the various stickers from exhibitions where it had been shown over the years, was retained along with the wooden stretcher that supported the rectangular canvas. The dealer who sold Figure a Room to the Museum selected a new frame and stretcher for the original Benson.

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Many years passed (actually just fourteen), and the Detroit Club again experienced financial woes. For the second time in May 1986, they sold their "Benson." It was consigned to auction at Christie's in New York, where it failed to sell. Later, a private collector from Delaware agreed to buy the painting at somewhat less than the reserve price. However, soon after the purchase, the Museum was contacted by the artist's great-granddaughter, Faith Andrews Bedford, who was researching Benson's artwork for his biography. Having already received a photograph of the painting from the Museum, she noticed that an almost identical painting had recently been auctioned off. She then mailed the Museum's director a copy of both the photo she was given and of the auction catalog in an effort to clarify the existence of"two"Benson paintings. The Vose Gallery, Boston, who was preparing a listing of all known works by Benson for their Catalogue Raisonne, was contacted by the Museum for background of the other painting, after Christie's could not provide any. The private collector also had been made aware of the two paintings which were identical in composition and both dated 1912. He promptly had the Vose Gallery examine the paintings for their authenticity.

Relying on Benson's hallmarks for light and composition, the Vose Gallery determined that the private collector's Benson was a copy of the Museum's Figure in a Room. Dismayed and disappointed, the collector sued Christie's for the return of his investment in the painting, plus legal fees. The lawsuit dragged on for several years, and experts were called upon to support both parties. Finally, invoking the concept of caveat emptor (buyer beware), the court found in favor of Christie's.

Subsequently, Douglas Hyland, Director of the New Britain Museum, who had been required to testify in the case, wrote the owner and asked that he donate the fake with Benson's original frame and stretcher, so that they could be re-united with Benson's original painting. He also asked that we recount the paintings' histories so that our visitors would become aware of this fascinating aspect of art historical connoisseurship.

Benson's delicate but lively use of color and tone made him a master of depicting light. It was an expertise that he used to dramatically light his figures to emanate radiance and warmth from his artwork. Employing crisp and incisive brushwork, Benson created solid forms of movement and spontaneity without overly detailing them. His skill for composition and figure painting are what made his works distinct and greatly loved.

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Please examine both paintings closely and decide which was the original Benson and which was painted sixty years later by a copyist. Scroll below to answer the question. The painting in the newer non gilt frame is the real Benson.

04benson DSC 0072Frank Benson, the real McCoy - New Britain Museum

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