Thursday, April 06, 2006

Is it a fake Norman Rockwell?
Or is it a genuine Don Trachte?

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of authenticity when it comes to art objects. What is it, exactly, that can make one painting worth millions, while another, seemingly identical to all but the most practiced eyes and most likely just as beautiful, is worthless? Usually experts can tell. But not always, as today’s NYT notes.
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.

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.
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.
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.

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.
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.

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.

1 comment:

steve ewing said...

I have a "Don Trachte - ["Front Door" Nusfjord, Norway] Signed Print but the art is Cleverly framed with a Natural 3D look but does have an old description on back that reads this; Painted By : Donald Trachte --- Next Line Down>>> Marion's Cousin ---- Next part is a detailed paragraph & reads; Frame Material From An Old Barn On Heisel's "Ginseng" Farm Located Outside Of Wausau, Wisconsin. Then at Bottom line; Framed By : R.W. Dewolf 1977 So I have had this piece for years as my mom & dad owned several Antique Stores & a Second Hand Store & when she died in 2013 I ended up with some Really Nice Older Items that now I have this one & cannot even find one anywhere or any other works by Don besides the Henry Comics & is wearing me out trying to reach out to anyone that knows more about what all Don painted & oh yeah this "Signed Print" does have a "Copyright" symbol next to his name on front lower right corner??? So that,s all I can give you but should be way enough to know what it is??? Thank You, Steven Ewing