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"My painting is worth how much?" How an unknown treasure hung on one woman's wall for 30 years.

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I'VE SPENT MY LIFE IN CHATTANOOGA, a beautiful city that's located in a bend of the Tennessee River and provides a beautiful riverfront walkway. Chattanooga has a deep appreciation for the arts, and our Hunter Museum of American Art is located on a bluff overlooking the river.

Every year, the museum hosts a fund-raising gala and auction, which I've attended for many years. This particular year, sometime in the 1970s, a local man who was active with the museum had donated a piece for the auction. I don't remember exactly what made me raise my hand to bid on the little ink-and-watercolor picture. I knew it was by an American artist.., and that I liked the boat and river he had drawn. I've always found water to be therapeutic, and I've gone on riverboat excursions before. I think the people who operate those boats have the most interesting stories to tell, much like the river itself. The sepia tone coupled with the seemingly excellent technique appealed to me.

Once the auctioneer opened the bidding, a woman with an art collection--and plenty of money-started bidding on it. I waited, never thinking that I stood a chance at winning. I raised the bid one time, to $500, after she stopped bidding, and in that moment, I unknowingly became an owner of a piece of fine art.

At the time, I was a stay-at-home mother, and my husband was early in his career as an orthopedic surgeon. We had always been careful with our spending and, although I had saved some money, $500 was a lot to spend on artwork. I hung it in the breakfast room so I could glance at it often. As the kids grew older, we'd often have what seemed like 90 kids and their mothers over to eat. Every time I went back and forth to the kitchen, that boat would still be paddling its way along the river.

Many years later, in the summer of 2008, Antiques Roadshow visited Chattanooga. This was a big deal for our little city. On this PBS show, people bring in their collectibles and antiques, and experts give the owners an appraisal on how much the items are worth. My daughter, Johanna, had some friends who couldn't go, so they gave her their tickets, and she suggested that we go. We gathered up some items that seemed like they'd be worth something: a Tiffany vase and two big solid silver spoons that were passed down from my mother's side of the family in Alabama. Carpetbaggers had burned their place down, but somehow these spoons had escaped. I wasn't even planning to bring the riverboat picture, but my daughter insisted, so I took it along too, almost as an afterthought.

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You wouldn't believe the people who showed up at the convention center! People came from everywhere--Alabama and Georgia and Ohio and Virginia. They had furniture and jewelry and, well, some awfully strange stuff. The show was well-run, with organizers directing the visitors toward particular areas based on their items: one area for paintings, one for Native American relics, and so forth.

We met with an initial screener, who would get a sense of whether the item was actually valuable, and probably whether we'd be good on TV. As we worked our way from area to area, we found out the Tiffany was a fake, and the spoons were worth only $30. But it was the riverboat artwork--the thing I almost didn't bring--that interested appraisers the most.

Confession: I knew for a long time that the painting was by an artist named Thomas Hart Benton, but I never looked him up, and I definitely didn't know he was famous!

The expert, Debra Force, who's the president of a gallery in New York that specializes in American artwork, quickly filled me in on Benton: He spent a lot of time around the river in the Kansas City area, and later became well-known as a member of a group of artists who specialized in realistic landscape scenes in the Midwest.

An envelope was attached to the back of the piece, and it contained a photo of the artwork. On the back of this photo, the wife of another artist named John Steuart Curry, who was friends with Benton, had written that the two men had exchanged artwork around 194o, and Curry got this one.

At the end of the segment, the expert told me that my piece might be worth about $30,000!

Of course, it didn't change the way I think about the picture. Although learning more about the artist and the painting's value was interesting--especially to my husband-I have no plans to sell it. What would I buy with the money? A new car that would only last a few years? If I were in need, or if I had a grandchild who needed money to go to school, then maybe I would feel differently.

Honestly, the only thing to benefit from my discovery is the artwork itself. We had it reinsured, at my husband's request, and cleaned and reframed with better-quality matting and non-glare glass by a well-regarded professional framer.

I believe you should just enjoy what you have, and that's what I'm continuing to do. I've moved it into a more prominent place in the family room, where we often sit and read or watch television, and now I can enjoy the river scene while I'm exercising on the elliptical machine.

Although I didn't make a big deal of telling people that I would be on TV before the show aired, the local PBS station hosted a special preview of the show at the Chattanooga Theatre Center, which Johanna and I attended. My reaction to the news about its worth (I had simply smiled and told the appraiser, "Thank you for this information") got quite a bit of laughter from the audience.

Thirty-five years ago, my husband was uninterested when I brought this watercolor home. He often joked that if he'd been with me at that art auction, I probably wouldn't have bid on it. But after Antiques Roadshow, he was thrilled to death that I did.

BY Joan Heywood, as told to Eric Metcalf
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Title Annotation:FIRSTHAND
Author:Heywood, Joan
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2010
Words:1037
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