Amid the dirt and layers of varnish, Katoomba auctioneer Steven Archer immediately knew that Woodford Academy was in possession of one of the most wonderful and “exceptionally valuable” Dutch masters.
It was in 1999 and he was part of a Antiques Tour event at the Academy, the oldest colonial building in the mountains.
He had been asked by then volunteer director Elizabeth Saxton and other workers to take a look.
“I really don’t know what drove us, but it’s lucky we did,” Ms Saxton said. “It looked like it was painted on the side of an old wooden apple box,” she added.
The 400-year-old Dutch “one in a million” painting Still life was valued at possibly as much as $5 million.
Ms Saxton told an official from the National Trust Of Australia about it and it was taken away to be stored in a more secure building than Woodford. Decades later, funding was found to restore it.
“I asked for years what happened to him,” she said.
Still life was sent back for a day at Woodford Academy – as part of the 2022 Australian Heritage Festival on Saturday May 14. Three hundred people have booked to see it after a $30,000, six-month restoration.
When Mrs Saxton saw the restored 17th century oil ‘treasure’ in recent media, depicting a lavish table typical of the Dutch Golden Age, she was impressed by its ‘vibrance’.
The painting is believed to be by Gerret Willemz Heda, son of the most famous Dutch master Willem Claesz Heda.
“Finding an authentic 17th century painting in my storeroom took my breath away,” said collections manager Rebecca Pinchin recently.
“It’s a story of remarkable discovery, taking us on a journey through a number of years, piecing together and validating the work through expert guidance and technology…finding the signature felt like one in a million chance.”
The Dutch Golden Age reflects a time from around 1588 to 1672. It may have been brought to Woodford by Alfred Fairfax (senior) or former Sydney Mayor William H Manning. Fairfax purchased the building in 1868.
National Trust spokeswoman Leah Tasker said many staff, volunteers, donors, conservators and industry experts were involved in the discovery – “an incredible collective effort and one of the incredible stories to come out of the Academy”.
The Academy has monthly open days. The artwork was taken to a safe place after the Gazette and Mr. Archer took a look. Mr Archer said he was disappointed the painting was no longer available to mountain people, but the Trust said it would return for special events. A copy is in its place.