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Sotheby's to auction painting found hanging in office at Pittsburgh Public Schools

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'Interior,' by Henri Le Sidaner. sold at auction Wednesday, May 8, 2013, in New York.
By Bill Zlatos
Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

The painting of a doorway into a room bathed in gentle light looked nice enough to Pam Capretta when she saw it in a catalog of art that Pittsburgh Public Schools owns, so she selected it to hang on the wall in her district finance director's office.

Turns out it's a post-Impressionist painting that could be worth more than half a million dollars, and its discovery in Pittsburgh solves an 80-year-old mystery in the art world.

“I have good taste!” Capretta said with a laugh.

The painting, “Interior,” by Henri Le Sidaner, could provide sorely needed cash to care for the rest of the district's art collection.

The city school board will vote Wednesday on a recommendation to have Sotheby's of New York auction it on May 8.

The Friends of Art — a long-standing nonprofit group that acquires art and donates it to the district to inspire students — bought the painting after it was displayed in the 1933 Carnegie International art exhibition here.

The artwork was considered “missing” in art circles since.

“It was really great it turned up and we know where it is now,” said Louise “Lulu” Lippincott, curator for fine arts at Carnegie Museum of Art. “There are all these really neat treasures buried all over Pittsburgh, and it's great when one pops up.”

The district approached Lippincott in the fall about the best way to deal with its collection. That's how she learned it had “Interior.”

How the painting slipped out of the art world's view is as mysterious as the scene Le Sidaner depicts in his 40-by-32-inch work — a doors open to an empty room illuminated through a window.

Lippincott, who saw a photo of the painting, said: “It's very moody, and the coloring is very restrained.

“(Le Sidaner's paintings) are almost always pure landscapes or still life. No human figures. They're often in twilight. The idea is to create this very quiet, contemplative, slightly eerie mood.”

She said Le Sidaner was very popular at the International. At least 50 of his paintings appeared here from the 1920s until his death in 1939.

She said the Carnegie would not bid on “Interior” because the museum has two similar paintings by him.

If the board approves the sale, district officials will part with the art treasure with some reluctance.

“Nobody wants to sacrifice a piece of art unless it's for the betterment of the bigger picture of the importance of arts education in Pittsburgh Public Schools,” said Angela Abadilla, senior program officer for arts education in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

“Our district is not at a point right now where we have a lot of extra funding to restore and repair and maintain the artwork we presently have in our schools,” she said.

“The estimated value of the painting is between $400,000 and $600,000,” Abadilla said. “We are hoping it's going to fetch much more.”

Capretta added: “I know he's definitely sold paintings in the $900,000s. I would say this is an average painting of his.”

Founded nearly 100 years ago, Friends of Art has given the district more than 340 paintings, sculptures and other works of art.

Abadilla said the group suggested selling one of the pieces to restore and secure the collection.

After an appraisal, the school district and Friends agreed on selling this one if the school board goes along.

A major reason the administration is willing to part with “Interior” is because Le Sidaner is French and most of the artists in the collection are from the Pittsburgh region.

Also, the painting would raise far more money for the collection than others, and it would not be safe to display it in a school, said district officials.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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