Heir today, gone tomorrow: Part II

  • Sunday, April 20, 2014

Niccolò (or Nicolò) Paganini (October 27, 1782 – May 27, 1840), Italian violinist, guitarist and composer. PROVIDED

Let's see, we left off last time with my treasure find of the Civil War Ambrotypes. Now, I will share the story of the hidden treasure that was returned to its family in Italy.

The year was 2002, I was still learning about generations before me through objects passed through countless hands, only to end up in garage sale bins and bazaars.

On one particular Saturday morning, I strapped on a fanny pack filled with dollar bills, a roll of quarters and one Ben Franklin for that “prize” find. I sloshed coffee all over my console as I rode through town braking and going and braking and turning around while looking for the little square and orange yard sale signs — I caused many a Christian to stumble behind me.

Although the search was always fun, it hadn't been a productive morning. One last stop before going home was the Moravian church bake sale/bazaar. I had promised my 88-year-old friend that I would buy some of the Moravian pies they had been baking all weekend. “They're going to go fast,” she told me. And that was exactly what I wanted them to do. Like, be gone before I got there. Don and I had tried their chicken pot pies the year before and literally spit them out into the garbage after taking a bite.

Thank God, the pies were gone! I feigned disappointment and browsed the bazaar sale items to spend an equal amount to add to the church ladies auxiliary fund. My loot consisted of beeswax candles, a few tinsmith pieces, a super buttery brownie and a beautiful, old wood picture frame with smelly cardboard backing.

I dumped the items on the kitchen table when I got home. Well – all but the buttery brownie.

Let's examine the frame; ornate, gold gilded and about 12-inches tall. I loosened the hinges on the back of the frame to remove the glass and cardboard. One conclusion I've come to, for whatever reason people hide things. Or – maybe they aren't hidden at all, maybe they are safely tucked away for the sole pleasure of the owner. Either way, I have discovered flowers, centuries old four-leaf clovers, letters, hair and – Egads – other unidentifiable preserved matter pressed into the binders of old books and the backs of frames.

When I lifted the cardboard backing from the frame, I realized there were actually two pieces. I gently separated the two and gasped!

A woeful musician stared up at me. I touched the painting on the canvas; the raised strokes told me it was hand-painted. I pulled out my magnifying glasses and tried to find an artist signature. None. The only markings were a quill pen date of 1832 on the back.

Internet search time. Ok, it's an oil painting of a violinist who in some renderings looked like Edgar Allan Poe. After a few searches, I concluded the painting is of Nicolo Paganini, violinist and composer, considered to be the greatest violinist of all time.

Nicolo was said to be so extremely talented that it wasn't humanly possible. He must have made a pact with the devil! His following was immense despite the demonic whisperings. Many an accomplished musician left his concerts breaking their violins over their knees in anguish.

It was definitely him. I found a few prints similar, but no oil paintings to value it. I spent hours delving deeper into this mysterious violinist. I was captivated by his story, his passion, his darkness – like many composers and artists over the ages, he battled demons with gambling, womanizing, alcohol and finally death.

His death could actually explain the reason I found his image portrayed upside down. In one story, I read that in many European cities, people came out onto the streets and mourned Nicolo's passing for days. Prints and likenesses of Paganini were turned backwards at his death – to view no more. After a little more digging, I learned the practice of turning photographs over to be customary practice at death for many reasons.

Anyway, the more I thought about this, the more I thought that this particular painting should go back to the family. Hmmm – or was the truth that I was scared eebie jeebies would jump on me for exposing him to daylight and then selling him on Ebay? I truly believe the latter to be a product of living in the South.

No. Truthfully, I liked the fact that the family at that time still maintained a page on the internet for Nicolo. After initial contact and several communications with a family member, I released the picture for the sum of $50 and mailed the package to its final home in Italy.

Even though I don't treasure hunt anymore, I still leaf through old books and frames at bazaars. I laugh when I think of the treasures that will be unearthed after my demise: a pocket of candy, a penny, movie tickets. When I skid sideways into those pearly gates (after further review from the booth), there won't be regrets of a life not spent, of a fortune hoarded or treasures left in books, frames or hidden in boxes. I use my good perfume; I burn my candles.

I don't know how this painting ended up in a Moravian church bazaar unbeknownst even to the hands that placed it on the table and attached that 50-cent label, but I am grateful for the story and the life I was able to peek into and learn from.


And contrary to popular belief “piddlin'” is not always leisure time. Piddlin' can be anything from bush-hogging a field to snapping a bushel basket of green beans on the front porch. Visit Renae Brabham's website at www.renaebrabham.com.

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