Mystery solved: The case of the missing husband
FAIRFIELD — The soap opera-like mystery has been solved — the “husband” was really the brother.
It was in 2017 that Melanie Marks, owner of Connecticut House Histories, was charged with the task of identifying two portraits painted by Ammi Phillips, an artist born in Colebrook in 1788 who traveled around the state.
With the help of former newspaper editor Patricia Hines, the two set out to find out just who the man and woman — sold as a pair by Massachusetts auction house Skinner Auctioneers — were. The portraits were painted during the time Phillips lived in Kent, and a client of Marks’ had purchased the pair for a home in Kent she was restoring.
What the two Fairfielders uncovered would have put any modern-day soap opera story line to shame: marriage and divorce, an out-of-wedlock baby, suicide and a disgraced stockbroker, and three portraits that went along for the journey.
Their digging uncovered the fact there had been three Phillips portraits put up for auction, and it turned out that Skinner had paired Phoebe Wing Sheldon with her brother, Preston Wing, and not her husband, Egbert Sheldon. The “real husband,” Marks believed, was actually the portrait of the second man that was put up for auction separately.
What they needed, Marks said, was to find that third portrait. Through a series of twists, turns and coincidences, they located that third portrait in York, Pa. The owner’s son emailed images of the letter Egbert Sheldon was holding, which helped with the identification.
The portraits were originally consigned to Sotheby’s in 1993, but didn’t meet the reserve price, so the owners put them in storage. At that point, the auction catalog shows the husband and wife properly paired. But when consigned to Skinner in 2001, Phoebe was paired with her brother, and Egbert was listed as a possible relative. Preston Wing, Marks said, was Phoebe’s “dashing bachelor brother,” who lived off and on with Preston and Phoebe and “hobnobbed with the rich and famous in Newport (R.I.).”
As luck would have it, Marks’ client was able to purchase Egbert Sheldon’s portrait, so all three are together again, after 17 years.
“It’s amazing,” Marks said, of finally being able to attach the names to the portraits, and reuniting them.
One reason Phoebe and her brother were likely paired incorrectly, Hines said, is because they looked alike. A description from Egbert’s passport, Marks said, mentioned his blue eyes. And the portrait of Egbert, according to Hines, “has these bright blue eyes.”
Portraits like these, Marks said, are often purchased because the buyer likes the time period. “They just have no names, but when you do what we’ve done, you now know who these people are,” she said.
And many of those unidentified portraits were painted by Phillips. Marks estimates there are over 680 unidentified Phillips portraits.
Hines and Marks are up to the challenge of trying to put names to Phillips’ portraits and said they would love to hear from people looking to find out just who that is hanging on their wall.
According to the National Gallery of Art website, Phillips painted for more than 50 years, and in different styles, so it was once thought they were done by different artists. From 1812-19, Phillips did his painting in towns along the New York-Massachusetts border, and those paintings were distinguished by an “almost pastel palette,” and faces with dark lined eyes.
In 1836, Phillips left for Kent, which lent its name to the next distinctive period, from 1829-38, in his career. According to the National Gallery of Art, “The work of the so-called ‘Kent Limner’ was first isolated when a group of ancestral portraits were brought together for a 1924 summer fair in that town.”
It was in Kent where the portraits of Egbert, Phoebe and Preston were painted, and where they once again reside — hanging in the restored house of Marks’ client.