• Fred R. Kline

TOM LEA’S LOST MASTERPIECE


Tom Lea, a legendary and much beloved Texas artist, who died in El Paso in 2001 at age 93, lived and worked in Santa Fe in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, and like most artists of that period, he struggled to make a living. Lea’s 1930s masterpiece, “Deer Hunters in Winter Mountains”—a scene of deer hunters on horseback after a successful hunt for much needed food in the snowy mountains near Santa Fe—was so popular it was used on the cover of every issue of New Mexico Magazine for several years during the 1930s. It was not, however, printed in color, but in black on a brown background, I presume to save printing costs.


Lea, who was one of the hunters, told me he sold the painting to the state-owned magazine for $50. At later times, when he tried to locate it for an exhibition of his work, the painting had disappeared, and thus he had never exhibited the actual painting in a museum or a gallery, nor was it ever catalogued among his collected works of art published over the years in many books devoted to his work. Lea finally stopped looking for it and considered it a lost work with the only record being the brown and black covers of New Mexico Magazine from the 1930s, of which he did not even have a copy.

“Deer Hunters in Winter Mountains” was still lost, but in plain sight, when it appeared at a popular auction in Santa Fe in 1998. The painting had gone unrecognized in the auction catalogue and was published with a very low estimate of value, with no mention of its importance to New Mexico art history or to Texas art history. I was aware of Lea’s grand reputation in Texas, especially in his hometown of El Paso and among the owners of the King Ranch, and I could count on a likely market among collectors. I had been involved since the 1980s in developing the art history of early Texas, 1850-1950, and had even been, with my late wife Jann, Consultant in Historic Texas Art to the State Capitol in Austin. At the auction, I purchased “Deer Hunters in Winter Mountains” for $3,500 and began my research which revealed its importance to New Mexico. Before long, I arranged for a feature article in the El Paso Times and as I hoped, a collector appeared in the blink of an eye and I sold it for $30,000 with a promise it would be donated to the Tom Lea Wing of El Paso Museum of Art. Today, 22 years later, that donation would be valued at $300,000. I was recently disappointed to discover it had not yet been donated.

When I got in touch with Tom Lea to tell him I had found and sold his long lost painting, we quickly became friends. Tom told me he was paid $50 for it during the Depression: “They certainly got their money’s worth on that one,” he jovially remarked. “But during those years I was very grateful for the $50.” In an unprecedented gesture, I offered to give Lea a commission on the $30,000 sale I had just made, which he graciously refused, thanking me for finding and preserving his “wayward offspring.”

When Tom Lea died, I donated a painting to the museum in his honor, where it hangs today: “Pancho Villa’s House” by Lloyd Goff. Goff’s painting recalls the time when Tom’s father, who was a judge in El Paso, went after Pancho Villa and put a price on his head. Villa in turn put a price on the judge’s head and threatened to kidnap young Tom, who survived the threat, as did the judge. Tom told me that story with a laugh. “Hell,” Tom said. “Had he kidnapped me, I’m sure my dad would have told Pancho Villa to keep me for awhile and teach me to pay attention.”

If someone asked me to guess where “Deer Hunters in Winter Mountains” was today, I have a pretty good idea—it is probably in the collection of his friend President George W. Bush, who famously quoted Tom Lea in his 2000 acceptance speech. I think Bush had the painting hanging in his private quarters at the White House. Today-who knows where it is? Additionally, the collector I sold it to was and is a close friend of George and Laura Bush, as well. As for my mission within Texas Art History, which was to establish “Deer Hunters” as a masterwork within Tom Lea’s “catalog raisonne”, here it is, with my compliments. It belongs in the National Gallery. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_C._Lea_III

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