Lucky dip: art scavenged from skip valued at $1m

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The Independent US

On the streets of Manhattan, finders are not always keepers, even if the item concerned is in a rubbish skip. At least, not when it turns out to be a stolen masterpiece by the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo which has been missing for 30 years.

That was a lesson learnt by the writer Elizabeth Gibson, who – like many New York "dumpster-divers" – occasionally retrieves discarded articles of bric-a-brac from rubbish bins and takes them home.

Four years ago, Ms Gibson spotted a 38in by 51in canvas in a skip on the city's Upper West Side and claimed it as her own. The picture – of three standing figures in blurred yellow, orange and purple – looked rather good on her living room wall. It would probably still be there if Ms Gibson's curiosity had not prompted her to try to find out more about the work. Her researches revealed not only its identity but its value – about $1m (£500,000).

A few months after finding the picture, Ms Gibson spotted Tamayo's signature in the upper right-hand corner and stickers on the back from a series of galleries – including one in New York which said it had no record of the work.

About a year later, she got the first inkling of what she had found when a friend brought her auction catalogues which showed that Tamayos were selling for $500,000. The friend also had art books, one of which had a Tamayo – her Tamayo – on its front cover. "I was stunned," she said this week.

Ms Gibson then visited the Mary-Anne Martin Gallery, which specialises in Latin-American art, and was told that her painting was almost certainly Tamayo's Three People, which had been bought by a Houston businessman for $55,000 as a present for his wife in 1977. Some time later, the couple moved house and the work was stolen from a storage warehouse. Nothing more was heard of it for years.

Now reunited with her picture, the widow of the Texan businessman has decided to sell it. It will be the star lot at a Sotheby's sale of Latin-American art next month. Ms Gibson will receive just $15,000 – the original reward offered by when the painting first went missing, plus a small finder's fee.

The mystery of Three People is not solved, however. The FBI still has no idea who stole it in Texas or how it ended up on a pile of household refuse in a New York rubbish skip.