Missing masterpiece found in 'Stuart Little' fetches S$357,500

BUDAPEST, Hungary - An avant-garde painting lost for nine decades until a Hungarian researcher spotted it being used as a prop in the Hollywood film "Stuart Little" was sold for over 200,000 euros Saturday at an auction in Budapest.

The painting "Sleeping Lady with Black Vase", by Robert Bereny (1887-1953), fetched a price of 229,500 euros, more than doubling its reserve price of around 110,000 euros.

Staff at the Virag Judit auction house told AFP that the buyer was an unnamed private Hungarian collector, and that the sale price exceeded expectations.

"I always knew it was a masterpiece, now it seems the market agrees," said Gergely Barki, 43, the Hungarian National Gallery researcher who noticed the painting in the 1999 kids' movie about a mouse as he watched TV with his daughter Lola on Christmas Eve six years ago.

The work disappeared in the late-1920s but Barki recognised it immediately even though he had only ever seen a faded black-and-white photo dating from a 1928 exhibition catalogue archived in the National Gallery.

Its unorthodox discovery even caught the attention of English actor Hugh Laurie, who co-starred in "Stuart Little" along with US actress Geena Davis, and, of course, the eponymous mouse.

"Little hurt to discover the foreground performances couldn't hold the attention, but still, what an honour," he tweeted last week about his role in the painting's find.

Barki opted not to go to the auction. "It was an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience to discover the painting, that was the exciting part," he told AFP.

"After finally returning to Hungary in the last few weeks for the exhibition, now I don't know when I will see my 'dear' again," he added.

The reemergence of the painting also stirred mixed feelings for a relative of Bereny contacted by AFP.

San Francisco-based filmmaker Lidia Szajko, grandchild of Bereny and his second wife Eta who features in the painting, said she wished her grandfather were alive to enjoy the attention.

"His life would have been easier with the recognition and valuations of his work," Szajko said. "It's a fantastic painting, I hope the new owner will lend it for exhibition so many more of us can enjoy it," she added.

A former owner contacted by AFP, Californian art dealer Michael Hempstead, said he recalled buying the painting for around $40 (32 euros) at a Catholic Church charity auction in San Diego in the late 1990s.

He sold it soon after for around $400 to an antiques shop in Pasadena where it was picked up by a Hollywood studio set designer to use as a prop on soap operas and movies.

"It doesn't bother me that it is worth a huge amount now," Hempstead told AFP by telephone.

"I am happy to have been a part of the painting's voyage to the big screen and back to Hungary," he said.

The owner of the painting during the decades before Hempstead bought it remains a mystery.

According to Barki, the buyer in the late-1920s was probably Jewish and left Hungary in the run-up to, or during, World War II.

"After the wars, revolutions, and tumult of the 20th century many Hungarian masterpieces are lost, scattered around the world," he told AFP.

The newfound fame of the painting attracted a huge crowd to the auction on Saturday.

Bereny, a leading figure in a pre-World War I avant-garde movement called the "Group of Eight", was a friend of Austrian pyschoanalyst Sigmund Freud and held exhibitions in Paris with French painter Henri Matisse.

After designing recruitment posters for Hungary's short-lived communist revolution in 1919, he fled to Berlin, where he had a romance with actress Marlene Dietrich.

He painted the now-famous work on his return to Budapest after being granted an amnesty by the government in 1926.

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