A Moran’s 'Antiques Roadshow' Moment

Was this a hitherto unknown work by the celebrated artist Thomas Moran?
Shani Toledano, the associate director of Doyle Auctioneers and Appraisal's paintings department, took a good two or three minutes before raising her head and announcing her verdict. Durell Godfrey

The painting, in an ornate Victorian frame, shows a rowboat on the water with a grassy bank beyond. The setting could be anywhere — maybe Town Pond in East Hampton, which is what its owner, Elissa Mott Derry of Flanders, had always been told it was. And the artist’s signature in the lower left corner, faint but still discernible — part of it, anyway — is . . . well, the first name is debatable, but the rest of it is beyond question:

Moran 1903.

Could this really be a hitherto unknown work by the celebrated artist Thomas Moran, whose 1883 studio, a national landmark right across from the pond, has just been opened to the public after years of restoration?

That was what Ms. Derry was hoping to hear from Doyle Auctioneers and Appraisers, whose annual Appraisal Day event, held at Clinton Academy, benefits the East Hampton Historical Society. For a $20 donation, optimistic owners of jewelry, silver, fine art, and other valuables can bring in up to five items for professional evaluation, just like on television’s “Antiques Roadshow,” where Doyle appraisers often appear.

Squinting at the signature through a high-powered loupe, Shani Toledano, the associate director of Doyle’s paintings department, took a good two or three minutes before raising her head. 

“I think it’s L-E-O-N,” she said finally. There was a long pause.

“Other people see T-H-O-M,” said an unconvinced Ms. Derry, who grew up in East Hampton, where, she said, her grandfather, a handyman, “traded a job” for the painting. “I was always told it was a rowboat on Hook Pond.”

Turning to Google, the appraiser called up a picture of Thomas Moran’s typical signature, a bold “M” with an arrow through it — nothing at all like the one on the painting. Ms. Derry’s face fell. 

Nonetheless, there was a connection. The Morans were one of the most prolific families of artists in American history. Among them was John Leon Moran, who rarely used his first name. He was Thomas Moran’s nephew, one of two sons of his older brother, Edward. That branch of the family lived mainly in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Ms. Derry persisted. “Is there any value in it at all? If it’s an East Hampton scene?”

“The genre is sort of Victorian,” Ms. Toledano answered. “That’s a little out of favor right now,” she added gently. 

Finally, the appraiser allowed that the work might fetch $300 to $1,200 at auction. “I would hold on to it,” she advised. “I would love to live with that painting. Just ignore the signature and enjoy it.”

“It was hanging over the couch in the living room,” Ms. Derry replied. “I had someone make an offer for it a few years ago, I guess I should’ve taken it.”

She reached for the painting. “It’s going right back up,” she said.

Could this be Town Pond in East Hampton? The painting's owner thought so, but we will probably never know.Durell Godfrey