How Rockwell's iconic painting lay hidden for 20 years

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Fans of Norman Rockwell, the 20th century painter and illustrator famous for his idealised portrayals of American life, were yesterday celebrating the discovery of one of his most important works, deep inside the wall of a house. Until a few weeks ago, no one even knew it had gone missing.

Experts never saw reason to wonder about the piece, Breaking Home Ties, which appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1954. The original canvas had been bought by Donald Trachte, a cartoonist and a friend of Rockwell, in 1960. For decades, it hung in his Vermont home.

Or did it? Mr Trachte died last year aged 85 and, as his sons tidied up the estate, questions began to be raised about the painting, considered Rockwell's second-most significant work after his iconic Rosie the Riveter, which sold at auction four years ago for $5m.

After the picture went off for cleaning prior to being loaned to a museum, differences were noted between it and the image that appeared in the Post. There was something slightly off about details of the scene depicting a young man, his face full of anticipation as he heads off college, sitting on the running board of a lorry with his craggy father and dog. Colours were wrong. Folds in clothes did not fall right.

That the painting could be a fake seemed absurd. Never had the provenance of a picture seemed more certain. But then, one day last month, the eldest son of Mr Trachte, Donald Trachte Jnr, went to his father's old home. He saw a crack in the panelling of one wall, and gave it a shove. It slid open and there inside was the authentic Breaking Home Ties, along with five other original canvasses by other artists.

Experts now think that his father must have copied the Rockwell in the early Seventies. At that time, he was going through a fractious divorce from his wife. Possibly, he copied the painting so that if were forced to surrender it to his wife, she would end up with the fake, rather than the real thing. Or, he wanted to make sure that the picture, for which he paid only $900, safely reached his children one day. "I think he just wanted to tuck these in the wall for his kids," Donald Jnr told the Berkshire Eagle last week. But he had no idea why his father had not told anyone about the pictures in the wall before his death.

Everyone will soon have a chance to witness for themselves the trickery of Mr Trachte. The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, in western Massachusetts, plans to hang the original painting for public viewing soon. And on a wall immediately opposite, it will hang the Trachte forgery.

The curator of the museum, Stephanie Plunkett, admits she was taken in at first by the fake, but said she had also started to have doubts. "You have this innate sense that you have a strong familiarity with the artist's work. But sometimes, something comes in and there are things that just look uncharacteristic, and you're not exactly sure."

Less happy with the conclusion of this story, you would imagine, would be the cartoonist's former wife. Still alive at 98, she is now called Elizabeth Markey. When Donald Jnr told her of finding the paintings in the wall, she apparently sighed and remarked only: "It doesn't surprise me."