The portrait hung in a Savin Hill Avenue parlor for at least a century. Its subject, a young boy in a green waist-coat, well coiffed, sits in an ornamental chair holding an orange and petting his devoted puppy.
The six-year-old child's soft blue eyes peer back at us through the ages, daring us to read his thoughts.
One idea that was not likely on his mind: "Someday, this painting is going to fetch my kin a whole treasure trove of greenbacks."
But after an auction last week in a downtown Boston showroom, that's exactly what the descendants of little Edward Reed Dorr have in hand. The painting, still in its original frame, was sold on Nov. 4 for $886,000 at an Americana and folk art auction run by Skinner Inc. in Park Plaza, Boston. The winning bidder was David Schorsch of Woodbury, CT, a buyer for a famous folk art collection, whose works were recently on display at Yale University.
The Portrait of Edward Reed Dorr (1808-1880) Seated in a Fancy Chair was "discovered" by a Skinner, Inc. employee last August when a member of the Dorr family called the auction house for an appraisal. Chris Barber, who specializes in Americana and folk art, was assigned to check things out.
"We got the call from an old family from Dorchester. In their big old Victorian home on Savin Hill Avenue, they said that they had a couple of naïve child portraits. That's always a good thing to hear. Painted well, naïve child portraits can bring big money at auction," Barber said.
"Almost the first thing I saw after I entered the formal entrance hall, in an old parlor off to the right, was this painting that had been hanging there for literally 100 years," said Barber. "It had all the elements that a folk portrait should have: a cute kid, in a formal outfit, in a spectacularly decorated chair, with a highly patterned, colorful rug. He's holding an orange - which is a symbol of wealth - with an orange tree forming an arch over his head, dog on lap. I knew it was good."
That depended on quite a bit of research, for which Barber and a team from Skinner, Inc. leaned heavily on the Dorr family, which had vacated the Victorian home within the last couple of years. The Skinner team estimated that the painting dated from roughly 1814.
"Once we knew the date, it was a question of whether the piece descended in the family," said Barber. "As it turned out, it did."
Based on the family tree, the Dorr family concluded that the young boy was most likely their relative Edward Reed Dorr, born in 1808. A tailor later in life, he was the father of S. Edgar Dorr, who moved into the Savin Hill Avenue. home in 1903, where he lived until his passing in 1933. Dorr family members had lived in the home throughout the last century and the painting was never moved from its prominent perch.
"The painting had never been cleaned or restored. It just had everything going for it," said Barber, who initially estimated the value at a conservative $30,000- $50,000.
Steve Fletcher, who runs the Skinner, Inc. operation, said that he had a sense that the Dorchester find would fetch much more than that.
"People often tell me, 'You must find the best things in Dover or Wellesley.' I say, 'No, actually!"
Fletcher recalls a Japanese scroll-top high board that he found on a tour of an empty home in a rough section of Lowell some years ago. The owner of the house, a 90-year-old man, was nonplussed when Fletcher insisted that the piece be moved at once for its safe-keeping. "Why? It's been here since 1835!" the older gent told him.
That piece ended up commanding $2 million at auction, Fletcher said.
The Savin Hill painting evoked a similar reaction in the marketplace. Fourteen bidders battled it out by telephone at the auction. When all of their ten phone lines were in use, staff members had to pull out their own cell phones for the event.
"It was pretty special and we all fell in love with it.
Some things leave a bit of an impression on us; that was one of them. It said an awful lot about the Boston of that day," Fletcher said.
The painting retains many of its secrets, however, including the identity of its creator. Barber speculates that it was likely the work of an itinerant artist, who would have been paid a modest sum - perhaps ten or twenty dollars - for the work.