So You Think You Have a Melchers

Gari Melchers, Mother and Child, oil on canas, ca. 1906, Gift of James Deering, 1925.70 The Art Institute of Chicago

Public television’s Antiques Road Show has done wonders for the art and antiques market. Suddenly bona fide treasures and terrific buys are seemingly within everyone’s reach. The program’s popularity certainly has had ramifications on my work.

I’m frequently called upon to authenticate or advise on the sale of Melchers paintings. Where once I could expect four or five inquiries a year, I now receive queries on a monthly basis. Lately, one out of every two phone calls is about one painting in particular, Melchers’ Mother and Child, an oil on canvas painted in Holland around 1905. Reproductions of Mother and Child have been widely distributed and are often mistaken for the real thing. Trust me. The Art Institute of Chicago,  not you, owns the original.

Melchers experienced occasional moments of genius, and that was unquestionably the case on the day he put brush to canvas to produce this universal image of motherhood. The mother’s protective ardor, the lifelike naturalism of the baby and the directness of their gaze, strike a responsive chord with anyone who ever had a mother. The original, with its spot-lit psychological drama, is as enduring as an Old Master painting. No wonder copies of it were so widely marketed.

Over the years, the Art Institute allowed this image to be reproduced on everything from postcards to promotional materials for La Leche League. In 1936, the Lakeside Press of Chicago published several thousand high quality color lithographs of Mother and Child. A large number of faux-textured lithographic copies mounted on canvas were marketed again in the 1970s by an outfit named Signature Masterpieces, Inc. It’s beginning to look like there are enough of these copies floating around to keep my phone ringing off the hook.

I’m getting very good at recognizing when a call is going to lead me into another Mother and Child dead end. The phone conversation usually begins with a hopeful voice relating how they discovered their picture in the dusty attic of a recently deceased family member. It is not unusual to be told that this picture “hung for all the years of my childhood over the fireplace mantel of mother’s front parlor.” There is still another group of folks who pick up these pictures at yard sales and flea markets on the outside chance that they have stumbled onto something important. Miraculous discoveries have occurred in just such places, so you can’t blame people for trying.

Still, I don’t lose patience with all the false leads. There is always the possibility that someone will have a legitimate copy, or related sketch or study, from Melchers’ hand, which he was in the habit of doing. In fact, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts possesses a handsome oil sketch of the Mother and Child. There is no reason why another couldn’t turn up. After all, I’ve identified 105 mother and child subjects by Melchers; everything from thumbnail sketches to finished easel paintings. 

 It’s not easy to explain how to distinguish a copy from an original, especially over the phone or through correspondence. That judgment call takes a practiced eye. On the other hand, the textured example by Signature Masterpieces is nothing more than a photograph. To determine whether you have a photographic reproduction, you should be able to separate the emulsion layer from the paper mount. Try this at one corner of the image. The Lakeside Press publication measures 20 x 16 inches. If you can make out brushstrokes, but texture is absent, you probably have this lithographic print. The surest way to tell the difference between an original and a published photograph reproduced in a book, newspaper or as a poster is to look with the aid of a magnifying glass for the telltale printing dots that make up the image.

One of the most uncomfortable aspects of my job is to be asked the inevitable question about the monetary value of a copy, an issue made all the more sensitive when the object possesses great nostalgic weight for a family. In the case of the Mother and Child, I am afraid sentiment far outweighs value. In the end, a picture is only worth a thousand words and what someone is willing to pay for it. ~ Curator Joanna D. Catron