Art collector buys £8,000 painting – and X-ray shows a £50,000 picture underneath
A collector who bought a portrait by a celebrated British artist has uncovered a £50,000 masterpiece – after an X-ray revealed another picture hidden underneath.
The art lover bought the original piece – a self-portrait by Robert Lenkiewicz depicting the artist in a nude pose with a female model – at auction for £8,500.
But after advice from an expert the unnamed owner took the oil painting to Torbay Hospital in Torquay, Devon to have it X-rayed. He was stunned to see that underneath the naked couple was the portrait of a tramp – worth an estimated £50,000.
Artist Robert Lenkiewicz (right) with Edwin McKenzie, the tramp he embalmed and kept in his studio
The owner of the double portrait, who bought it in a collective auction of Lenkiewicz’s work in 2003, believes the artist must have painted over it for some reason.
He said: ‘When the experts looked at it they reckoned it contained another picture underneath.
‘So I took it to Torbay Hospital and discovered the tramp, which could be worth more than what is painted over it.
‘The picture I bought at auction could soon be valued at more than £50,000. It is a private work and perhaps should never have gone under the hammer at the estate’s sale in 2003.’
The original painting of a man and woman under which another picture was discovered
The X-ray showing the faint outline of the lost portrait
Lenkiewicz, of Plymouth, Devon, died of a heart attack aged 60 in 2002 and left behind no cash but a collection of art worth an estimated £2million.
He was famous for his works with the homeless and after he died the embalmed body of a 72-year-old tramp was found stuffed in a drawer in his studio.
The tramp – Edwin McKenzie, known as Diogenes – was a close friend of the artist and his whereabouts since his death in the 1980s had been a mystery. It was believed the dying wish of Mr McKenzie, who had no known family, was that his friend should embalm his body as a ‘work of art’.
The pair first met when the tramp was living in a concrete barrel at a rubbish tip near his studio and the artist embalmed him in 1984.
Officials at Plymouth City Council later tried to seize the corpse but couldn’t find the it until it was discovered hidden following Lenkiewicz’s death.
It is technically possible to remove the top painting to reveal the tramp materpiece underneath, but the price tag would not be justified on a £50,000 painting.
Art dealer Adrian Phippen, a Lenkiewicz expert, said the double portrait was ‘a very important piece of work’ by the artist.
‘Works like this one will become more valuable and highly prized by collectors than the self portraits with women that he painted.
‘To remove the top painting would be expensive but whoever buys it will have a unique piece by a leading British artist.’
A spokesman for South Devon Healthcare Trust added: ‘On rare occasions the hospital’s radiology team will be asked to X-ray an object.
‘We will always try to aid people. In this particular case the trust was happy to help and staff gave up their own time outside clinical hours to carry out the unusual request. They will be pleased to know that they have been part of such a remarkable finding.
‘We would like to offer our congratulations to the owner of the painting, who must be delighted with the discovery. Where the trust had been able to assist, a donation to the trust fund is usually made.’
The owner of the portrait, who lives in London and Ashburton in Devon, now plans to sell it at the Driftwood Gallery in Padstow, Cornwall.
He said: ‘I think the image there now is very good and rare. And it would be expensive to restore it to get to the tramp.’
The popularity of Lenkiewicz’s work has increased since his death and the current world record for one of his pictures stands at £57,600 for a self-portrait in 2005.
His work was virtually ignored by the art establishment during his lifetime, but now experts are comparing his colourful bohemian style with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.
Many of his paintings depict characters from around his home including skinheads, punks, criminals, fishermen, and the many women in his life.
Lenkiewicz learnt to paint with brushes made from his own hair and was married and divorced three times, leaving 11 children by various women.