By Roxanne Roberts

The Washington Post

The team at the Potomack Company auction house knew they had something special: A 1780 letter from Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de Lafayette. The Founding Father had written to the French commander warning about the British naval fleet. Given the newfound appreciation of Hamilton (see: the smash Broadway musical), curators estimated the letter could sell for $25,000 to $35,000 or a lot more if a bidding war broke out.

And then, just like Hamilton’s tumultuous life story, there was a dramatic twist: The letter was authentic and a valuable piece of American history. But it was also stolen.

In preparation for sale, books and manuscripts manager Christine Messing discovered that Founders Online, a historical documents website maintained by the National Archives, listed the original letter as “missing.” Turns out the Hamilton letter was one of several papers spirited out of the Massachusetts Archives by a clerk 70 years ago and sold to unsuspecting dealers and collectors.

The South Carolina family that consigned the letter to the auction house last fall — part of their grandfather’s collection — had no clue of its criminal history. Messing called the Massachusetts Archives, the FBI got involved and prosecutors filed a formal complaint earlier this month asking that the letter be returned to Boston.

“Everyone’s first reaction was, ‘It needs to go back to where it should be,’” says Potomack owner Elizabeth Wainstein. “That was never a question.”

It’s just the latest drama for the Alexandria, Virginia, auction house, which has also handled a stolen Renoir, a Russian painting looted during World War II, an original Andy Warhol and historic urns from Arlington Cemetery. The world of fine arts can be intimidating, puzzling — and sometimes kind of sketchy.

People want so badly to believe the dusty old junk in grandma’s attic might be worth millions. It’s the fantasy that launched “Antiques Roadshow” and reality shows about flea markets and abandoned storage lockers: The dream that the ugly painting at Goodwill, the stamp collection in the basement, that funny-looking watch at the flea market, an Action Comics No. 1 (the first appearance of Superman in 1938) marked $1 at a garage sale could be life-changing.

It’s the same fantasy that launched million-dollar fake paintings, counterfeit historical documents and some very sophisticated thieves.

Spotting the fakes

Last year’s Oscar nominee “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” told the true-life story of writer Lee Israel, who forged, altered or stole more than 400 letters from famous authors, actors and playwrights in the 1990s. When dealers finally got suspicious about her very clever fakes, she began stealing original letters from libraries at Harvard, Yale and Columbia and replacing them with counterfeit versions created with vintage typewriters. It took years before the libraries caught on to her scam.

That was before the internet and the ability to communicate with experts around the globe who can spot red flags or outright fraud. “There is so much more information and technologies now,” says Wainstein. “Fakes are not good for the market.”

It was relatively simple to determine the backstory when the Hamilton letter showed up last fall. It was one of dozens stolen from the Massachusetts Archive between 1937 and 1945 — many had been recovered, but this one had disappeared. After checking with the online database, it was easy for Messing to match the letter in her hands to the photocopy in the records and then notify the FBI.

The owners were disappointed, of course, but cooperated fully. Messing, a Colonial expert who worked at Mount Vernon, had better news about the rest of their collection: The other documents, including two letters written by Thomas Jefferson (one sold for $47,000, the other for $23,000), were authentic and had no criminal history.

Another consignor brought in an inkwell from Appomattox that was the gold standard for authenticity: It sat on the desk used by Grant and Lee to sign the surrender papers and was purchased by Gen. Philip Sheridan, who later gave it to a widow of a Union soldier. The inkwell, along with a letter from Sheridan describing the gift, was passed on through her family until it arrived at the auction house.

“When Christine first came to me and said, ‘We have the inkwell from Appomattox,’ I said, ‘Yeah, right,’” Wainstein says with a laugh. But it was true — and it sold for $21,000.

Then there’s the famous saga of the flea-market Renoir. In 2012, a Virginia woman walked in with a tiny painting with a “Renoir” nameplate. She said she found it in West Virginia and paid $7 because she liked the ornate gold frame. The painting, if authenticated, could be worth $100,000.

Anne Craner, Potomack’s director of fine arts, established the painting was a real Renoir — purchased in 1926 in Paris and brought to America by Herbert May. There was no indication that the painting was lost and stolen in any international database. But Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira discovered the May family had loaned the painting to the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1937 (something current BMA officials did not realize) and then learned it was stolen in 1951.

The flea market story unraveled; based on the Post reporting, the painting was probably taken by the mother of the woman who claimed to have stumbled across it. The Renoir was returned to the museum.

“It’s our duty to get to the bottom of the provenance,” says Wainstein, who worked at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s before opening her own business in 2006. “Where is the trail of ownership? You have to piece it together from historical documents, from newspapers, from dealers and auctions and family records.”

Not every item gets extensive research; the auction house goes through 10,000 objects every eight weeks. But even a little digging can lead to surprising results.

Two years ago, a Connecticut couple decided to sell their art and contacted Potomack. Their biggest piece — a 7 1⁄2-by 8 1⁄2-foot painting — depicted a Russian czar fleeing the Kremlin. The origins of the piece were unknown; it came with their house when they purchased it in 1987.

The auction house had just two clues: The artist’s name, Mikhail Panin, and the title: “Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichnina.” The 1911 work was thought to be “destroyed” after it was looted from the Dnepropetrovsk Art Museum in Ukraine in 1941. An email from Craner to the museum confirmed the find, and the painting is headed back.

Ditto for two massive decorative urns owned by an antiques marble dealer on the Eastern Shore. He knew they were from somewhere at Arlington Cemetery because he’d bought them from a stonemason tasked with their disposal. The 9-foot marble urns were originally part of the Memorial Amphitheater and had been replaced during a renovation by replicas; they were supposed to be preserved but had fallen through the bureaucratic cracks. The owner donated them back to the Army.

Questions and answers

Technology giveth and technology taketh away. The same tools that can detect a fraud can also reveal a hidden treasure — or lead to more questions.

Just two years ago, a New York art dealer was sentenced for selling fake paintings in what has been called the biggest art fraud in modern history. Between 1994 and 2009, 60 works purportedly by ­Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock sold in top galleries for $80 million. The story was that a mysterious collector in Mexico had inherited the art from his father; in fact, they were painted by a Chinese artist living in Queens.

Because the art came from Manhattan’s most prestigious galleries, it sold to big-name collectors so eager to buy the art that they didn’t ask many questions. Forensic testing — X-rays and chemical analysis of the paint — eventually proved the artists could not have painted the works.

Which is why the recent announcement of an unknown Rembrandt is so controversial. The Dutch art dealer behind the find, Jan Six, is a descendant of one of Rembrandt’s subjects; his family has an extensive collection of old masters. Last year, Six said he paid $185,000 for a portrait he believes has been mistakenly attributed to Rembrandt’s circle of painters. If he’s right, it’s worth millions. But Rembrandt experts can’t agree, even with the testing that verified the age of the canvas, paint and brushstrokes.

That brings us to the Andy Warhol saved from the trash bin. Sometimes it is less about science and more about having an expert eye. In 2013, while going through a Maryland home for a sale, Craner spotted a framed Warhol of Marilyn Monroe. “Oh, that’s just a poster that Mom had framed,” the sellers said, adding that they planned to toss it. Craner — who worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for more than a decade — took the piece back to the shop, unframed it and discovered the “poster” was in fact a rare artist’s proof that sold at auction for $94,000.

For you treasure hunters, one last story.

A few years ago, an American metal dealer said he bought a small gold egg at a flea market in the Midwest for $13,302, thinking he could turn a small profit for the precious metal and gems. But his initial efforts were disappointing; the value of the metal was appraised at about what he’d paid.

Frustrated, he Googled the only identifiable feature: The name “Vacheron Constantin” on a watch inside the egg, one of Faberge’s signature surprises. That led him to an article about the famous Faberge Easter eggs created for the Russian imperial family. Of the 50 created, 43 survived the 1917 Revolution but seven disappeared.

Long story short: The man contacted a Faberge specialist mentioned in the article, who confirmed he was holding the third Imperial egg, created in 1887. The egg sold to a Faberge collector for an undisclosed amount estimated to be in the neighborhood of $30 million.

Just something to think about as you browse through garage sales this summer.

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