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Finding a Windfall on the Wall

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Hearing rumors that valuable art works might be adorning the walls of several schools in the Central Bucks School District in Doylestown, Pa., Gene Abel, the system's business manager, quickly arranged to have an appraiser look at the paintings in question.

Eugene Bechtel, the art expert called in from Greenwood Studios in Trapp, Pa., was very surprised by what he saw.

An oil painting of an American Indian looking down on a river from the edge of a cliff was determined to be the work of Frederick E. Church, an American painter who was part of the "Luminist'' movement of the latter half of the 19th century. Further inspection led to the discovery of a still life, dated circa 1900, attributed to the American William Merritt Chase.

The Church painting, which Mr. Abel says is a "heretofore uncatalogued'' work by the artist, was estimated by Mr. Bechtel to be worth approximately $125,000. But as Mr. Abel points out, that estimate could be low, considering the recent international interest in other Church paintings, such as "The Icebergs,'' found several years ago in a school in England and later sold for more than $10 million.

Though also a significant find, the Chase still life is not thought to be as valuable and was appraised at $16,000.

How the district came to have these two paintings in its possession is a mystery, according to Mr. Abel. He estimates that the paintings have been moving around the district for 15 to 20 years and speculates that "when they were originally given, they may not have had as high a value.''

In any event, the school board must now determine whether to sell or keep the paintings, and a good argument can be made, Mr. Abel says, for both options.

"If the paintings were given to the district, it might be a good idea to restore them and put them on display,'' he says. "On the other hand, the school district is not an art gallery, and if they are sold to an art collector who would display them, the paintings could still be seen and the district would have funds from the sale to support educational programs.''--JW

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