For several years, museum curators and American painting experts had been troubled by discrepancies between Norman Rockwell's 1954 canvas "Breaking Home Ties" and tear sheets of the legendary Saturday Evening Post cover for which he painted it.Normally the gold standard in judging authenticity is the provenance of a work of art — that is, the proof of ownership that traces back in an unbroken line to the artist. But sometimes even that breaks down.
Comparing the two, experts mused that the painting's colors seemed oddly washed out. They conjectured that a zealous conservator had overcleaned the work, which depicts a fresh-faced boy about to leave home for the first time, posed with his dog and his craggy-faced father on the running board of an old truck.
The painting's provenance was undisputed: Don Trachte, known as the cartoonist who took over the Sunday edition of the comic strip "Henry" in the 1940's, bought the painting from Rockwell for $900 in 1960. It became his prized possession.Click on the NYT link above to catch the whole story about how Trachte's sons uncovered the real Rockwell and the other originals. There's also a local connection. Trachte was born here in 1915 and graduated from Central High School and attended the University of Wisconsin. His father Arthur started the company that eventually became Trachte Building Systems, Inc., which the family sold in the late sixties and which is now located in Sun Prairie. Trachte began working for Carl Anderson, the creator of "Henry" here in Madison, in the early thirties. His obituary in the Wisconsin State Journal last year gives some more background about this fascinating man.
So prized, it seems, that when Mr. Trachte and his wife, Elizabeth, jointly filed for divorce more than a decade later, the cartoonist cooked up a ruse, presumably to ensure keeping the treasure himself, hiding the original in a secret niche behind a wall in his house in Sandgate, Vt. What he and his wife subsequently divvied up — the Rockwell and seven other paintings by other local artists — were therefore copies, presumably made, their children say, by Mr. Trachte himself.
Trachte's recreation of his art collection appears to have been less about fraud than about an elaborate prank (the paintings were all going to his kids, in any case) by a man who was known for his playful nature — and who took his secret to his grave when he died last year at the age of 89. What's amazing to me is that for more than 30 years everyone who looked at the painting — family, friends and experts alike — were convinced they were looking at the real Norman Rockwell work (and quite a valuable one at that). Don Trachte must have been a hell of a painter. I'd settle for an original Trachte any day.