First you need to know two things about me. I have a husband obsessed with estate sales and auctions. It started a year ago and has gradually gone from a pleasant discovery to attending 3-4 times a week. He calls it "Treasure Hunting". And second, I'm a private investigator on the side (Really. Not Really). For myself and any curiosity I might have. I creep on facebooks and study obituaries and like to track things down, facts. The internet makes it quite do-able.
Last Saturday Chuck was doing his usual thing. He likes to arrive late in the sale on the last day and take away some real steals. He got two crates of "good stuff" for next to nothing. Our routine is when he gets home he starts handing me items he thinks could be "jewels" which is our code for 'we can retire tomorrow'. We have had a few good finds, and even in that same weekend we found a pencil for a dollar that ended up being worth $70. Not retirement-worthy but a good return-on-investment.
I sorted through the promising tea cups and vintage card game and came to the painting that I want to talk about today.
I took the painting out of the frame to get a closer look at the signature. We both liked it a lot, but it had some water damage and seemed quite fragile. Paintings, even originals, rarely seem to go above $200-$300 for unknown painters and the water damage pretty much negates that. But still, I love a mystery and a challenge. I was having a really long pajama day and a good online search sounded fun.
I started looking up the artists name. The signature was hard to make out but a note taped to the back said Oakland City, IN in 1932. Wow, I don't usually have these kinds of clues when I start my PI work. The note was clearly not that old, and I found out later had been written on the back side of a scrap of 2002 IRS form. The tension builds.
After a couple hours I gave up, but something drew me back, most likely the desire to continue to stay in my pajamas for a good cause. I had canceled my ancestory.com subscription but then accidentally renewed it, so it occurred to me to go on there. I hit multiple dead ends ("Your search found 45,890 matches") But then I put in Gola (just the artist's first name) and Oakland City, IN and somehow, bing, it came up with something. I can't tell you how much fun that is. My own kind of treasure. Now I possibly had his full name and date of birth.
There was an Indiana census record that showed me in 1930 he (I wasn't sure before that if the artist was male or female) was 15, had 2 brothers. If this was the artist of my painting he was only 17 or 18 at the time he painted it. My daughter is an artist herself and told me it looked like a novice had painted it (Chuck and I don't care, we just liked the fall colors). So thrilling. Next, I opened his enlistment record from 1941, so at age 27 he enlists in the army. It says in those records he is single has two years of college, is a commercial artist. Suddenly my interest has become a surety that I was truly on the right track. Commercial artist!
I next see his death record in the 90's. So I'm not going to find Gola, but I had started out assuming this was a seasoned artist who painted in 1932, so I'm not too surprised. I run across city directories and Social Security records so I can see he got married (there might be kids!), was a "Card Writer" and eventually owned a home where his parents and siblings all moved into.
But then the story took a twist. I read an entry that said he was a Cartographer in WWII under General Patton, and mapped out the D-Day invasion. History, sitting here in my lap, on my recliner, in my pajamas. OK, part of me still thought "Wow maybe this little painting is worth something" but mostly I was just excited to learn about the artist and marvel at how history had ended up in my living room.
With a correctly spelled full name I have lots more googling I can do and the first hits lead me to the names of his two daughters. Young enough to have facebook, one of them has an unusual spelling for a first name and a few minutes later I had found who I believed to be Gola's two daughters and messaged them both on Facebook. I didn't hear anything for a few hours and I was impatient so I located someone in the next generation and heard back immediately, that yes, this was her grandfather. Yes, he had been an artist.
Within a short time her mother was messaging me about this. And she told me that just that morning she had consoled a friend who lost a parent a year ago that day. That even though her father was gone 25 years, every now and then someone would bring him up, or tell her a joke, or share something that made her smile. She then got home to find the message from me, about her father. From her father.
The granddaughter has a PhD-- in Art History-- and hadn't seen any paintings from her grandfather. I learned Gola's daughter was having surgery in a just a few days and this really gave her something to look forward to. None of the family had seen Gola's paintings he did at a young age, because he was told he wasn't that good, and moved on to commercial art.
We haven't been able to figure out how it ended up at an estate sale in Peoria, IL, but it was a fun journey making these discoveries. The painting is in the mail. I can only imagine what it would be like to get something that your father painted, something you'd never seen. My own father has been gone 34 years this month. It feels like some amazing timing, God's timing, and it was a privilege to be a part of this story this week.
And today in worship my pastor used a phrase I jotted down, "A picture of love." and I thought, that's it, that's my title. Gola's young self sent a picture of love out into the universe and 85 years later it ends up back with own his family.