Phelan uncovers rich trove of city owned art

July 20, 2010
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City Council President Tim Phelan has recovered and made efforts to preserve seven pieces of 19th Century art – museum framed oil on canvas portraits of former Lynn mayors that were hidden under a pile of junk in the basement of city hall.

The artwork, which includes at least four pieces by the noted American artist Edward Burrill, are being housed temporarily in the city council president’s office – but in their mass are so large and imposing that his office walls would be insufficient to hang them there.

“A place with security and air conditioning has to be found for them. In the mean time, they will remain locked in my office for safe keeping,” said Phelan.

The formidable collection of oil paintings has not yet been appraised. However, it is believed the ornate, hand carved, wooden, gold leafed frames alone are worth about $35,000.

In addition, Phelan has said he will be calling upon appraisers at Skinner’s Auction House in Boston to assess the value of the oil paintings. It is believed that Skinner will perform the appraisal pro bono for the city.

Burrill’s paintings alone may be worth as much as $100,000 – and a Google Internet search of recent auctions of his work reveal that his oil paintings are held in a number of private collections, by the Smithsonian Institute and by the Addison Gallery of Art in Andover.

The largest of the oil paintings found in the basement of city hall, an unsigned 4’X 5’ portrait of Roland Usher, the Mayor of Lynn in 1866, has been previously restored. It was nearly destroyed by water in the city hall basement some years ago

Its gold leaf, hand made, museum style frame is not water damaged. It would cost $15,000 to replicate, according to a local frame maker.

“With gold at $1200 an ounce, it would take at least four to five ounces of gold to cover a frame that size. Also,” she said, “hand made and carved frames of that size are extremely expensive – in the many thousands of dollars.

Burrill was born in 1835 and died in 1913.

“From the moment these oil paintings were discovered, along with many rare early photographs of Lynn public officials, I made the effort to do what was right to preserve and to protect them,” said Phelan.

The Daily Item denounced Phelan last week for spending about $6,000 on framing and preservation items related to the paintings and photographs.

“City Council President Timothy Phelan is on a spending spree,” the Daily Item’s David Liscio wrote in a July 16 front page piece titled, “Hey Big Spender.”

“A review of public expenditures found that Phelan is busy writing checks for custom built display cases and picture frames …” he wrote.

Phelan was circumspect about the article.

“Preserving this city’s priceless treasures is part of my job,” he said.

The issue of Phelan’s excessive spending for picture frames is made a moot item after the discovery that the oil paintings and photographs he found in the basement of city hall are worth $150,000-$200,000 in addition to their historical value.

The paintings include seven classically executed oil and canvas portraits of Lynn mayor’s, including Usher, mayor in 1866; Hiram Breed, mayor in 1861, painted by E. Eugene Wells; Peter Neal, mayor in 1862; Edwin Walden, mayor in 1870; George Newhall, mayor in 1913-1917 by William Wires; the son of the noted Broad Street portrait photographer of the same name who died in 1886; and a portrait of William Johnson, mayor in 1858.

“These oil paintings are part of this city’s wealth. I will do everything in my power to preserve them and to pass them on to the next generation. Not everyone believes expensive oil paintings are part of this city’s history and wealth – but I do,” he added.

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