When Cheryl Conroy Warren’s late father fished an old etching out of a Yale dumpster about 18 years ago, she didn’t think much of it. But this summer, she learned the piece is an original print by contemporary Chinese artist Zao Wou-Ki, valued at $10,000 to $15,000.
Warren made the discovery while attending “Antiques Roadshow” in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on June 3. She was once the owner of Antiques of Wilderwood in Milford, Connecticut, where she appraised and sold pieces dealt by her family and friends in the area. Despite being a New York University\trained appraiser, though, she had trouble identifying the foreign signature on the etching. Her father, Arnold Conroy, brought the piece to shortly before she was involved in an auto accident in 2000, which left her unable to walk without assistance for almost a year. The injury led to the closing of the store two years later.
“You can’t do a year of art history and think you know a lot — you don’t. When my father found the piece and brought it to me, I didn’t know what it was, and I, at the moment, didn’t have time to look up what it was,” Warren said. “Now, the etching by Zao Wou-Ki, his signature first of all is in Chinese. And I don’t read Chinese. I saw that, and I had zero clue. But I would also never sell anything until I knew what it was worth.”
When appraising items in her shop, Warren said, she would consult her library of art history books to try to determine the most accurate value for pieces.
Warren’s father had been working on a construction project for Yale when he first discovered the etching in a Yale dumpster. “Dumpster diving,” as Warren calls it, was a common practice him and his daughter, who shared a love for the renewable and repurposed. But this dive was different.
“It obviously had just been put into the dumpster, because the glass was broken on it, but nobody had thrown something else on top of it,” Warren said. “Because if someone had then come by and thrown something else on top of it, then the broken glass would have ruined the etching. And if the truck had come and picked up the dumpster, it would have been compressed and it would have been gone. The reality is that my father saved that original work of art from destruction.”
Warren had always meant to have the item appraised, but, between running two businesses, she never found the time. When she finally made it to the road show she brought the etching and a ceramic lamp, hoping the latter would be as valuable as she thought it was.
When the lamp was announced to be worth only $500, Warren entered the line for prints and fine art appraisals, where she met Todd Weyman, vice president at Swann Auction Galleries and fine-arts prints expert for Antiques Roadshow. Weyman has worked for the show for the past 21 seasons. He knew the piece was worth airing as soon as he saw it, and, after pitching the segment, had Warren meet with the producers to fill out the paperwork.
Weyman identified the work as “Flora and Fauna” by Zao Wou-Ki, completed in 1951. Warren’s copy is number 190 out of the 200 made.
“It’s an early work of his, while his work was still representational,” said Weyman. “His work became completely abstract. And you can see that in the work. You actually see the flora and fauna.”
Denise Leidy, curator of Asian art at the Yale University Art Gallery, said Wou-Ki studied calligraphy and painting as a child in China before moving to France, where he was influenced by abstract expressionists.
“He is kind of the first global artist in the way that he was rooted in one tradition and then moved to another,” Leidy said.
Weyman valued the piece to be worth anywhere between $10,000 to $15,000, but added he would not be surprised if it sold for more at auction. He said there has been a recent growth in the modern Asian art market and that Wou-Ki’s paintings have sold for over a million dollars within the past five years.
Before attending the road show, Warren had no idea of its worth and was not informed of the suggested value until Weyman told her during the recording of her segment. Not only was she surprised, but her opinion of the work has since changed.
“When I saw it I was like ‘really dad?’ It looked like a bunch of stick people. I was not impressed,” Warren said. “But now, I look at it and I really appreciate it. I’ve taken it out several times and each time I look at it, I see something else. It’s a splash of stuff. There’s so much going on. It’s unbelievable.”
Warren has not yet sold the etching, but plans to eventually, when she finds the appropriate market. She hopes to use money from its sale to finance her mother’s new kitchen. She thinks that’s what her father would have wanted.
“My mom and dad were married for over 65 years and they were attached at the hip. So, anything that was my father’s was my mother’s. That’s the way they were,” she said. “I just wish my dad was alive. I wish he could see this. I wish he knew what his find was worth. That’s all I could say. I hope he knows. I hope he’s around and he knows. I think he’d be laughing his ass off if he knew.”
The segment during which the etching was appraised aired on Jan. 15.
Gaby Mencio | firstname.lastname@example.org