If you missed the 1999 movie “Stuart Little,” you can be forgiven. The adaptation of E.B. White’s children’s book of the same name was generally well received but, at the end of the day, it’s a movie for kids. But thankfully, a young girl named Lola Barki made sure to see the film — and, importantly, she made sure her dad watched it, too. Because what he, Gergely Barki, saw, was something no one had seen for nearly a century. Or, at least, that no one had realized they had seen.
In the image above there are a few recognizable faces. From left to right, there’s Hugh Laurie, Stuart Little (the animated mouse, in this case voiced by Michael J. Fox), Jonathan Lipnicki, and Geena Davis. But Mr. Barki noticed another face — and no, he wasn’t hallucinating. If you look behind the Little family, you’ll see a painting hanging above the mantle. For almost everyone, our brains ignore it as an unimportant part of the set. But Mr. Barki knew better.
The painting was a long-lost masterpiece.
Barki, at the time, was a researcher at Hungary’s National Gallery, and as a result knew a lot about the works and styles of Hungarian painters. For example, he knew that in the early 1900s, an avant-garde Hungarian artist Robert Bereny created a work now seen as one of his greatest, titled “Sleeping Lady with Black Vase.” The painting was purchased by an art collector in 1928 but hadn’t been seen publicly since and was presumed lost. And although Barki had only seen a black and white photograph of it, he was pretty sure that it was hanging on the wall, right behind the Littles.
Barki went to verify his hunch and emailed the producers of the movie. Ultimately, he made contact with a set designer assistant who, as the New York Post reported, “bought [the painting] as a prop for $500 at an antique shop in Pasadena, California,” having no idea about the painting’s true nature. (Apparently, children’s movies have pretty extravagant prop budgets.) Luckily for the assistant, she really liked the piece — per Vanity Fair, “when production wrapped, [she] bought the painting from the studio and hung it in her apartment.” Barki, upon her invitation, came to look at the painting first-hand and confirmed that it was, in fact, Bereny’s missing masterpiece.
The assistant ended up selling the painting to an art collector who, in turn, placed it up for auction; it sold for the equivalent of $285,000 in December of 2014. Barki didn’t benefit from the financial windfall his discovery precipitated, at least not directly; he was working on a biography of the artist whose masterpiece he helped recover, but didn’t receive any fee from the sale.
From the Archives: Stolen Smile: The heist of the Mona Lisa.