Had Clifford Schorer not been running late for a friend’s retirement party, he would never have stumbled across a 500-year-old masterpiece drawing that has the art world aflutter.
It’s now anticipated that the work — “The Virgin and Child with a Flower on a Grassy Bank,” by Renaissance star Albrecht Dürer — could make Schorer, an entrepreneur from Boston, a very wealthy man.
“We believe it will be worth a record price,” the 55-year-old told The Post. “The speculation is that this will be at least $50 million.”
His wild ride began in 2019, when he was driving his 2012 Prius on Interstate 495, en route to New Haven, Conn., where Amy Meyers, director of the Yale Center for British Art, was having a retirement party.
“I forgot my gift,” said Schorer. “It was 5:05 p.m. and I didn’t think I would find anything open.”
So he turned to Google and came across Brainerd Phillipson, a rare book dealer who sold titles out of his home. Schorer pulled off the highway, scored a William Blake poetry book and was hustling back to his car when Philbrook asked if he knew anything about art.
In fact, Schorer, who buys and sells distressed companies, also collects art and was once president of the Worcester Art Museum.
“Then Brainerd told me that his friend has an Albrecht Dürer drawing,” he recalled. “I said, ‘No. He doesn’t have a drawing. He has an engraving. There are zero drawings by Dürer that are both unknown and privately owned.’”
Little of Dürer’s work ever hits the open market. Only a handful of his drawings have been put up for sale since 1978, when a watercolor went for around $1.3 million at Sotheby’s in London.
Schorer said it would be fine for Brainerd to give his number to the friend. “Eleven days later,” he said, “I got a text with an image that looked like a typical print of Madonna and child, but it was so pixilated that I couldn’t see much. Then I got a higher resolution image and was dumbfounded.”
He had to see it in person. The man with the drawing, who remains anonymous, happened to live one mile away.
Ten minutes later, Schorer was at a home he describes as “a modest house where repair work needed to be done and there were cars in the driveway that needed service.” Once inside, he remembered, “I sat down at his dinner table, looked at the drawing and went silent. He asked me if I was all right and then walked into the next room to watch ‘American Pickers.’”
After a few minutes, the man returned and asked Schorer what he thought.
“I said, ‘This is either a masterpiece or the greatest fraud in the world.’”
The man, who earned a modest living buying and selling secondhand goods, had picked up the drawing at a Concord, Mass., estate sale for $30 — he is, Schorer explained, “religious and I think he respected the religious allegory.”
That sale took place in 2016, following the passing of architect Jean-Paul Carlihan. According to the Boston Herald, Carlihan inherited the piece from his grandfather who bought it in Paris in 1919. The husband of a family member told The Post that he “did not remember seeing it hanging” in Carlihan’s home. This makes sense, as his survivors believed it to be a nearly worthless reproduction.
Like Carlihan’s heirs, the buyer also had no idea what the drawing was worth. In fact, he previously almost sold it to a person who wanted the piece strictly for its frame.
Schorer saw more than that. While inspecting the work, he said, “I was alive with electricity … and went out on a limb. I advanced [the seller] $100,000 without conditions.
“My own belief was my own foolishness. If it was not a drawing by Dürer, it would be worth a couple thousand dollars,” he added. “But three days later I was on a flight to London. The [coach] seat next to mine was empty and I set the drawing down there.”
Once in the city, he left the drawing in the care of Jane McAusland, one of the world’s most respected conservators of work on paper who has preserved pieces by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and William Turner, at the Royal Library in Windsor Castle.
Some three weeks later, he got his assessment via email. The subject line told him everything he needed to know: “The news is bad…”
According to McAusland, the work appeared to be artificially aged, which would immediately disqualify it as a legit piece from the 1500s.
“Initially, I thought it was right,” McAusland told The Post. “Then I noticed false fox marks [signs of aging] that were painted on. They were made in the 19th century because somebody had no faith in the drawing’s [supposed] age. That made me think it was a fake. Plus there was a modern adhesive behind the paper. That did not help either. I reversed my original belief.”
But Schorer wasn’t willing to give up — on his $100,000 investment or his pride.
“I cared deeply because [being wrong and paying all that money] would have been a lack of sanity,” he said, adding that he asked McAusland to go back for a second look. “I wanted her to clean all the backing off and send a beam of light through the drawing to see if it had a watermark.”
As it turns out, “There is a watermark known only to Albrecht Dürer drawings — a trident with a ring next to it. That’s the symbol of Jakob Fugger, the richest man who ever lived. He controlled a large percentage of the European economy, plus copper and linen production, and was the financial backer of the Pope,” Schorer said. “He made the paper for Albrecht, who was his court artist.”
McAusland agreed to clean off the adhesive. “Then I saw that the paper had the correct laid lines, which confirmed that it could have been from the 16th century. I shined a light and there it was: the trident with the ring. I called Cliff immediately and told him the news. He almost dropped his phone.”
Over the past couple of years, the work has been on a worldwide tour, showing at the Albertina Museum in Vienna and the Agnews Gallery in London, where it is currently being exhibited. Next month the piece arrives in Manhattan where it will be displayed at Colnaghi gallery beginning Jan. 21.
As for the original finder, like everything else involving him and this work of art, his ultimate financial outcome remains mysterious. Though Schorer would not reveal their contractual terms, he did describe the original payment as a $100,000 “advance” and characterized the agreement as “an interesting deal.”
At some point, Schorer plans to sell the Dürer. Though he is not sure when that may happen — “The art-world is slow moving,” Schorer said. “If you hope to sell it in a certain year, you will be out of luck” — he anticipates it landing at a museum or with a well-heeled collector. “This is the find of my life,” he said. “Wherever it ends up, I would want to visit it.”