When was the last time you got a 5,000 percent return on an investment?
After purchasing what he thought was a print of Archibald Willard’s “Spirit of ‘76” painting nearly 40 years ago, a Florida man has learned it’s an original and could be worth more than $1 million.
Jay Stevens, 59, bought the watercolor painting at a yard sale in the late 1970s, talking its previous owner down from an original asking price of $1,000 to just $200.
When he learned of Wellington’s Spirit of ‘76 Museum earlier this year, Stevens sent pictures of the painting to Scott Markel, museum director and authority on all things Willard.
Stevens saw an article years ago about a man named Jack Warner who runs a museum in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and bought a “Spirit of ‘76” original.
Warner purchased the painting for $1.5 million in 2005 at the Christie’s American art sale in London — more than tripling the previous sale record of $343,500. Another original is currently on the market in New York for $1.8 million.
Stevens was convinced for years his painting was a print after an art dealer told him all “Spirit of ‘76” originals were already owned by collectors, galleries, and institutions.
“When I saw that price, I was just shocked,” Stevens said. “I purchased the painting for the image. I had no idea of the value. You hear people say they never thought they’d win the lottery, or that stuff like that doesn’t happen to them. Well, it happens. It happened to me. My dad always used to kneel down and say his prayers every day of his life. He said if you live your life the right way, good things happen to you.”
Stevens’ father has since passed away, leaving the son as the sole caregiver to his 90-year-old mother, Peggy. He returned home to care for her after working as an antiques dealer in Atlanta, Ga., for 20 years. The pair live in Port St. Joe, a small town about 100 miles south of Tallahassee.
“Her back was seriously deteriorating and she needed me here, so I came,” he said. “I just wanted to take care of my mom. This painting is a godsend. I’m hoping my mother can see this whole process happen. She’s very excited for me and I hope it’ll relieve some stress on her. There’s a lot of things I want to have that would make her life easier.”
Notes written on the back of Stevens’ piece are signed, “Mrs. Maude,” leading Markel to believe they were penned by Archibald Willard’s daughter, Maude Connolly.
Before passing away in 1922, Connolly gave the painting to her son, Willard. Before dying in a veterans hospital in 1961, he decided to give his grandfather’s artwork away to friends. It was at that hospital that Markel and Stevens suspect the painting passed to the man at the yard sale, whose name is unknown. According to Stevens, that man was trying to earn enough money to return to his Ohio home.
“We’ve been able to track its path pretty clearly up until this other guy comes into play in that hospital,” said Markel. “Everything about Mr. Stevens’ story checks out, though. There’s probably a way to find out that man’s name, but I don’t think it’s necessary to verify this piece. Everything makes sense. Mr. Stevens did not have the information available to him to do a fake job on this. This is legit and a very valuable painting.”
“Scott is a wonderful, cordial person and I can’t overstate how much he’s helped me,” said Stevens. “He’s an asset to his community and I wouldn’t be in this position without him. I’d still be in the dark with all of this if it weren’t for him. He’s a wonderful man.”
There are about 20 known original copies of the “Spirit of ‘76,” including ones on display at the Herrick Memorial Library, Cleveland city hall, and the U.S. State Department. Some experts believe one in the town hall of Marblehead, Mass., is the very first copy, but that is not a consensus opinion.
Since the White House only has a “Spirit of ‘76” print in its collection, Stevens reached out to officials there July 12 about purchasing his work but has not yet received a definite answer. He says he’s open to any seller as long as the price is right and the painting will be put on display.
Markel and Stevens both voiced a desire for Willard to become a larger part of mainstream historical discussion and for his most famous work to shed its label of “America’s best known painting by its least known artist.”
“I just don’t want it to end up in a vault or locked away in someone’s house,” Stevens said. “I’m a patriotic American and this is a patriotic work of art. It deserves to be somewhere that people will see that. It excites me to think about what’s out there in attics and garages people haven’t discovered yet. You just never know when you’ll find something behind a wall or under a floor that’ll change your life.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.