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Painting That Hung In Public Library Sells For $510,000

December 8, 1987

ELY, Minn. (AP) _ An oil painting depicting a tranquil scene with two women and an infant at a garden table went pretty much unnoticed while hanging in the public library for 50 years.

Since Friday, however, when the City Council accepted a $510,000 bid for the painting, it has become the talk of the small town in northern Minnesota.

The painting is ″Breakfast in the Garden″ by Frederick C. Frieseke, a Michigan-born artist who lived from 1874 to 1939 and is regarded as one of the top American impressionists. His paintings routinely sell for $500,000 each, never less than $100,000, and have brought up to $800,000, said Ann Schmoll of Boston’s Vose Galleries, which specializes in American art.

Nobody’s sure how his painting got to Ely.

A few years ago, a visitor offered $4,000 for the painting, but the Library Board decided to keep it. Interest in it resurfaced in September, when Lee Tessier, the city clerk and treasurer, was talking with City Councilman Gerard Bibeau, who jokingly offered $500 for it.

″I sort of liked the painting,″ Tessier said. ″But I’ve got to be honest with you. I think the average person would wrinkle up his nose and walk away from it.″

However, Bibeau’s comment made him curious.

Appraiser Edie Van Camp of Duluth said the painting might bring $22,000 on the local market, but advised Tessier to contact someone in New York, where the market for such art was likely to be better.

Tessier found a couple of New York galleries that were interested.

The Ely City Council decided that the painting would go to the highest bidder: Jordan-Volpe Gallery of New York City, which had offered $510,000. Council members later learned that two comparable Frieseke paintings were sold for $125,000 and $340,000 at weekend auctions.

″It’s certainly a nice find, a nice picture that will mak somebody very happy,″ said Vance Jordan, owner of the Jordan-Volpe Gallery. He said the painting will go to ″an important private collector of American art″ whom he declined to identify.

How Ely will use the $510,000 has not been determined. Some residents propose using it to improve the city’s cultural offerings while others want to use it for street and sidewalk repairs.

Not everyone was glad to see the painting go. Mary Levander, 56, was one of four people who went to a City Council meeting to protest the sale.

″I’ve loved that painting all my life,″ she said. ″To me, it’s worth more than its money value. I just like to see a town keep its treasures, and we have very few around here.″

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