The one that got away: fisherman's legal battle over £150,000 artwork

 

Fisherman Tony Varney and his daughter Selina found an 1885 work by US watercolourist Winslow Homer outside a rubbish dump in Ireland in the 1980s. The work had apparently been abandoned. They subsequently learnt it was worth £150,000, and attempted to sell the work at auction in New York in 2009.

After learning of the sale, the painting's original owners stopped the auction, claiming the work, called Children Under a Palm Tree, was rightfully theirs. Two years on, the two families are still locked in a legal stand-off over the painting's ownership, and their story can be told in full for the first time.

"I would have willingly sat down and sorted this out," Ms Varney said. "I just don't know how long this is going to go on. I am just answering questions they are throwing at us as honestly as I can. I don't know if they are intending on striking a deal. At the moment it is just going round and round and round."

She said she was "upset" when Blake's descendants, who live at the family home in Myrtle Grove, County Cork, stopped the sale, and said the dispute had caused a "lot of heartache, a lot of grief, a lot of money".

The work shows the three children of Sir Henry Arthur Blake, a British colonial administrator who lived in the Bahamas in the late 19th century. Homer was a guest of the family and painted their children, who were holding a fancy dress party.

The watercolour remained in the family's ownership, and it travelled with them when they retired to County Cork, Ireland. It is presumed it then remained there for the ensuing decades.

However, mystery still surrounds how the painting managed to find itself outside a rubbish dump in the 1980s. While Blake's descendants claim it was stolen from their property in Myrtle Grove, they have no record of the crime taking place. Ms Varney and her lawyers argue that since her family found the work, and it remained in their possession for nearly two decades without any claim on its ownership, it now belongs to them.

"There was no crime report, and 20 years after the event it appears the family now realises it was stolen, which puts them in a very interesting legal situation," said art dealer Philip Mould, one of the presenters of Fake or Fortune?, the BBC programme which will tell the full story of the saga on Sunday.

He added: "If something was deliberately thrown away, that also makes things very complicated. Sotheby's are currently acting as Solomon, and are waiting for either party to come up with evidence it is theirs." Mr Mould identified the work on Antiques Roadshow in 2008 and has since followed every development in the family's tale with interest.

There is also a dispute over the circumstances in which Blake's descendants stopped the sale. While Sotheby's claims it contacted them when they first encountered the work, and says they raised no objection, the family says they heard nothing until they saw the auction publicised in the Sotheby's catalogue. The work now remains in the auction house's possession in New York.

"I think we would rather keep it," said Simon Murray, Sir Henry's great-great-grandson, who is representing his family's interests. "It is such a special picture. The colours are wonderful. It's a very significant part of my family's history and we really want it back."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice