Had it not been for the discerning eyes of Goodwill store employees, the research skills of the store manager and the help of a few art historians, the Parisian street scene painted by Impressionist Edouard-Leon Cortes might well be hanging today in a college dorm room, over a bed in some cheap Highway 50 motel, or on the faux wood-paneled walls of an Eastern Shore double-wide.
Instead, the painting that was dropped off along with the rest of the day's intake at the Goodwill store in Easton - pots and pans, end tables, clothes, coffee machines, clock radios and the like - is in the hands of an anonymous connoisseur of French Impressionist art, or at least someone who appreciated it enough to fork over $40,600 for the piece at a Sotheby's auction a few weeks ago.
"It could have very easily ended up put in a pile, marked for $20," said Ursula Villar, marketing and development director for Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake Inc.
It's not unusual for buried treasure to be found at a Goodwill store, but most tales of fantastic finds emerge after a customer has left the store with a bargain-priced item, only to find out its true value later.
This time, though, the piece in question wasn't priced and put up for sale - and as a result, Goodwill Industries is $40,000 richer.
"We just lucked upon an opportunity to increase our ability to give back," said Terri Tonelli, manager of the Easton store. "Our mission is about helping people - the less fortunate and disabled - with job readiness and career training. This is going to go a long way to help that."
And, as for the donor who left the painting at the store back in March, he or she is out of luck. Even if the accidentally generous philanthropist could prove the donation - Goodwill doesn't keep records of donors or give them itemized receipts - the gift is considered a legal, and final, transaction.
Tonelli said she was on vacation when the painting was dropped off at the store around March 19.
Luckily, some sharp-eyed store employees plucked the item from that day's load of donations, suspecting that it might be something of unusual value.
"They had recognized it as something worth a second look. So when I came back from vacation, that's when I actually put my hands on it and took a look," Tonelli said. "We get a lot of donations every day. The thing with paintings and art is it's hard to distinguish sometimes whether it's real, or a print, or a copy."
This painting, though, had an antique-looking frame, with a gold embossed nameplate carrying the artist's last name, Cortes, and a French title, Marche aux fleurs (Flower Market).
"I could tell it was a real painting, and that it was older," she said, "as opposed to something you might get at Ocean Gallery," Ocean City's warehouse store of affordable art.
In her office, she typed the artist's name into Google. What turned up was this:
Born in 1882 in Lagny-sur-Marne, 20 miles east of Paris, Cortes was the son of a Spanish court painter, who was taught by his father and studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. A painter with remarkable Impressionistic flair, Cortes died in 1969. He was best known for his Paris street scenes (like the one on Tonelli's desk). Some of those, she found through further Googling, had sold recently at prices nearing $60,000.
"The hair on the back of my neck was standing up by then," she said. She compared the signature on her painting with those she was able to call up on the computer. It seemed an exact match.
Tonelli says the painting, had it not been singled out in the store, probably would have been priced at $100. Instead, Tonelli, who has worked at the store for three years, called headquarters.
"This type of thing can happen in any Goodwill store. We get amazing things donated all the time. It's really, truly a treasure hunt to walk in the store," she said. "Part of the reason we're so cautious is that we had a piece of art come through years ago that sold for $50 and turned out to be worth $3,000."
The Cortes painting was taken to the Goodwill Industries regional headquarters in Baltimore, where, spokesman Villar said, local art experts were invited to examine it. They determined that Goodwill very well might have the genuine article in its hands.
"The best next step seemed to be to contact someone who could authenticate it," Villar said. "We shipped it to Sotheby's so they could clean it, give us authentication and auction it off."
The prestigious New York auction house called back with good news.
"They said it was very much a genuine work of art and a great find," Villar said. "We were blown away. Definitely this is something that doesn't happen to us every day. This is the first time Sotheby's has ever been involved in one of our sales."
Sotheby's cleaned the painting; checked, as it routinely does, to see whether the painting had ever been reported stolen (as has happened with some Cortes pieces); and cleared it for auction.
While Sotheby's has a policy of not identifying bidders (winners or losers), the owner of Rehs Galleries Inc. in New York - currently home to about 10 Cortes paintings - said he made the second-to-last bid on the painting.
"It just got too expensive," said Howard Rehs, who owns the gallery with his father, Joseph. He said he did not know who made the winning bid.
Rehs was the winning bidder, though, on a second Cortes painting, a winter scene, sold in the same auction for $37,500. His gallery is probably the biggest dealer in works by Cortes, whose paintings have become more highly prized in the past nine years, Rehs said.
"He was always appreciated as an artist, but people are now beginning to see the importance he had," Rehs said. Though Cortes is best known for his Paris street scenes, his landscapes, still lifes and other paintings have become more sought after as well. Many of his works can be seen on the gallery's Web site (http://www.rehs.com/cortes-virtex.htm).
Rehs said he wasn't totally surprised by the painting ending up in a Goodwill store. He remembers selling a high-priced original painting to the Ritz Carlton chain that ended up in a Hawaii hotel. At a sale of the hotel's contents, a man purchased the painting for $5.
"You hear stories all the time where some customer in a Goodwill store buys something for $10 that turns out to be worth thousands. In this one, I guess Goodwill makes the profit, so this is kind of nice. It's very good that someone there knew what they were doing."
Tonelli, though, says she's no art expert, and she credits her entire staff for finding fine art amid the piles of household goods:
"It was really a team thing All I did was Google it."