Two lost paintings by Italian Renaissance master Fra Angelico have turned up in a modest house in central England in a discovery hailed as one of the most exciting art finds for a generation.

The works — two panels each painted with the standing figure of a Dominican saint in tempera on a gold background — are expected to fetch more than $1.9 million at auction.

They were discovered behind a bedroom door in a terraced house in Oxford, central England, when art auctioneer Guy Schwinge was called in to carry out a valuation after the owner of the house, British librarian Jean Preston, died in July.

They were commissioned by Florentine ruler Cosimo de’ Medici and his brother Lorenzo, major Renaissance art patrons, in the late 1430s for the high altar at the Church and Convent of San Marco in Florence, where Fra Angelico, a Dominican monk, lived.

“We are dealing with two works of art painted by one of the ‘greats’, intended for his own church and commissioned by one of the greatest art patrons in history,” Schwinge said in a statement. “It simply does not get much better than that.”

The main panel from the altarpiece remains at San Marco, but the frame was broken up 200 years ago as a result of Napoleon’s invasion of Italy. The subsidiary panels from the altarpiece are now scattered in museums around the world.

Media reports said Preston found the paintings in a box of odds and ends when she was working as a manuscript curator at a museum in Huntington, California, in the 1960s. She did not identify them but thought they were “quite nice” and persuaded her father to buy them for a few hundred pounds.

Dillian Gordon, curator of early Italian paintings at the National Gallery in London, described the find as “quite breathtaking”.

“It never ceases to amaze me how these things come to light,” she said in a statement.

Copyright 2011 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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Discovery (2006) 

[From Wikipedia: 

Discovery of lost works

Worldwide press coverage reported in November 2006 that two missing masterpieces by Fra Angelico had turned up, having hung in the spare room of the late Jean Preston, in her "modest terrace house" in Oxford, England.

Discovery of lost works


Jean had been consulted by their then owner in her capacity as an expert medievalist. She recognised them as being high quality Florentine renaissance, but it never occurred to anyone, even all the dealers she approached on behalf of the owner, that they could possibly be by Fra Angelico.

There was almost no demand at all for medieval art during the 1960s and no dealers showed any interest, so her father bought them almost as an afterthought along with some manuscripts. Ironically the manuscripts turned out to be high quality Victorian forgeries by The Spanish Forger.

- Her father had bought them for £100 each in 1965;

- Her father bequeathed them to her when he died in 1974.

- They were finally identified in 2005 by Michael Liversidge of Bristol University.

Last year (2005) she asked the art historian Michael Liversidge to look over a few of the paintings her father had left her. On his second or third visit he spotted the paintings, which are on poplar wood. "I though they looked interesting," he said. Mr Liversidge thought they were Tuscan and from the mid-15th century but was amazed when his research concluded they were missing pieces of Fra Angelico's altarpiece.

Ms. Preston was interested in Liversidge's findings, but took no action on them.  She simply rehung the two works back on the wall of her spare room.  

She died the following year, in 2006, at the age of 77.

The paintings are two of eight side panels of a large altarpiece painted in 1439 for Fra Angelico's monastery at San Marco.  The altarpiece was split up by Napoleon's army 200 years ago (in the early 1800s).

The center section is still at the monastery.   Six of the small side panels are in German and US museums. These two panels were presumed lost forever.


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