Donna Davidson Sewalk was enjoying her morning coffee and reading a story in The Advocate about an art exhibit in New Orleans when an image published with the story caught her eye.
Accompanying a story about a painter named José Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza, the picture showed a woman with a child on her lap. Something about it — the way the lace was painted and the overall pose — felt familiar to Sewalk.
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"So I looked over my shoulder at the paintings on the wall, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, these paintings must be by the same guy!' ” she said.
She called her sister Karen Davidson Montelepre right away. Before that moment, neither Sewalk nor Montelepre had ever heard of the painter Salazar; they hadn’t a clue that he was a New Orleans portrait painter who was famous from about 1783 to 1802.
All the sisters knew about the paintings was that they had been handed down in the family for generations.
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“You know how it is,” Sewalk said. “Your parents want to tell you about your family history, and it goes in one ear and out the other.”
The sisters decided to check out their hunch with the curator of the Salazar exhibit at the Ogden Museum, Cybele Gontar. So they wrapped the portrait of the mother and child in a blanket, put it in the trunk of the car and drove it to New Orleans.
“Can you imagine that we knew so little about what it was worth that we put the painting in the trunk?” said Montelepre. “By the time we found Cybele at her gallery on Julia Street, it was raining.”
Gontar remembers being skeptical (but polite all the same) when Sewalk and Montelepre came in.
“It's not uncommon for people to stop on and say they think they have a painting by a famous artist, but it very, very rarely turns out to be true,” Gontar said. “I asked if they had a photo for me to look at, and they said one of the paintings was out in the car. We dodged raindrops to make sure it stayed dry.”
The portraits came to the sisters and their three siblings via Matias Francisco Alpuente y Ruiz, a Spanish colonial “carabiner” and the financial administrator of the city.
His portrait is the companion piece to the mother and child painting published in The Advocate that had stirred Sewalk’s curiosity.
Alpuente’s son, pictured in the lap of his mother, was Captain Francisco Bonaventure de Alpuente, who helped the city during the War of 1812 by raising a group of soldiers to fight the British.
In turn, his son, Dr. Francois Ruiz Alpuente, established a hospital on Magazine Street. Dr. Alpuente left the portraits to his daughter, Marie Mathilde Alpuente (Bailey), whose own daughter, Mathilde Antoinette Bailey Moore, became the next owner.
Moore handed down the works to her daughter, Elizabeth Joy Moore Davidson, the mother of five including Sewalk and Montelepre.
For a while, Gontar examined the mother/child portrait in silence.
“Cybele didn't say anything for a long time but we were watching her face,” said Montelepre. “She took out a magnifying glass and took a long time looking at the brush strokes.”
“The more I studied it, the more certain I became that the work was by Salazar. It had all of his stylistic fingerprints,” Gontar said. “His brushwork was loose, he used a red ground, and the poses of the sitters were formal, stiff and almost mannequinlike. He also liked to use small props — a flower or a ball — for the sitters to hold.”
So much history, so much value! What to do with the portraits?
“We struggled with the question but at the end of day, we decided to sell them,” said Sewalk. “There are five siblings in all, and everybody gets along, but what about the next generation? Would any of our children or grandchildren appreciate them or even have the right kind of house to put them in?”
Adam Lambert, of Crescent City Auction Gallery, was entrusted with the sale.
“It was a rare opportunity to have the privilege of auctioning the pieces and being part of the team that researched their background,” Lambert said. “The takeaway is that if you have something you think is valuable, take it to an expert who can help you.”
By the time the bidding was over, the portrait of Mattias Alpuente sold for $112,500 and the portrait of the mother and child for $87,500 (both figures include auction fees).
Whenever Sewalk and Montelepre have second thoughts about the decision to sell the portraits, they take comfort in the fact that the works are now in the hands of another New Orleans family (who wish to remain anonymous) who will take great care of them.
“What we wanted to avoid was us hanging on to them for a long time, then having them end up in somebody’s dusty attic,” said Sewalk. “Who knows? If that had happened, they might have been put out in the trash one day or sold for pennies at a garage sale.”