Image: NBC New York
Image: NBC New York
The idea of discovering a secret treasure in your own home – perhaps hidden under the floorboards or behind a dusty bookcase – is unimaginably exciting and for most of us little more than a pipe dream. But for Carl Sabatino such a fantasy became reality in 2004 when his dying aunt told him the location of a previously unknown family treasure. Indeed, what he found there could be a unique discovery worth millions of dollars.
The story began in March 2004 in the New Jersey home of his aunt, Jenny Verastro. Just 72 hours before she passed away, Sabatino told the New York Daily News in 2015, Verastro had said, “Don’t forget, Carl, to look under the sewing machine.”
Fortunately, Sabatino knew where his aunt kept most of her important possessions and set about finding the sewing machine. He was looking for a sequestered crawlspace located underneath Verastro’s staircase.
The first part was easy. He simply pulled back a hidden part of the wood paneling in the crawlspace that he knew would reveal a secret space perfect for the stashing away of his aunt’s safe.
But, while Sabatino did indeed find the family safe in this spot, it was by no means the only thing that he discovered in there. For one, there was also the sewing machine that his aunt had mentioned only days before she died.
The sewing machine was attached to a small desk and was no doubt used at one time or another to repair all manner of fabrics. But after Sabatino moved the machine itself, something fell out from under the desk and landed on his knees.
Sabatino told the Daily News that he was “stunned” by the discovery and revealed to NBC New York that he immediately “began to cry.” After all, he was only moments away from finding out what was inside the secret stash of his aunt Jenny.
The treasure was wrapped up neatly in an issue of a now-defunct newspaper called the New York Journal-American. The date on the paper stated October 5, 1947, meaning the artefact inside had been wrapped in the paper for almost 60 years. Sabatino pulled the wrapping aside.
Underneath it was a painting. But this was no ordinary work of art. The signature in one of its corners read “Picasso”; the marvelous picture appeared to be a recreation of Picasso’s early 1900 work Woman with a Cape.
The original artwork, however, has been on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art for the past 60 years. So what was it that Sabatino was now holding? Was it the real deal, or was it a fake? He set about finding the answer.
His first stop was to see a specialist at the New York branch of Christie’s. Sabatino told the Daily News, “She examined it for about 30 seconds and literally flipped it back at me and said, ‘This is a $10 poster, don’t waste your time.’” But Sabatino would not give up so easily.
Sabatino knew the history of how this painting ended up with his family. Indeed, he remembered that the illustration of the lady in the “fuzzy hat” was bought by his uncle, Nicky Verastro, in London during the Second World War. Verastro had paid £10 for it at the time.
But that obviously didn’t mean that the painting was either real or fake. So Sabatino spent the next decade gathering a mountain of evidence to prove beyond any doubt that this was in fact a one-of-a-kind piece of Picasso artwork.
Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Sabatino read up on Picasso’s existence in France and eventually discovered what he felt was the key to the puzzle. He says that in 1936 the famous artist dabbled with a printing procedure known as gum bichromate, which is kind of a mixture of painting and photography.
So Sabatino had his treasure tested by Kenneth Smith at Westmont, Illinois’ Center for Art Materials Analysis. As part of his analysis, Smith removed the smallest amount of emulsion from the painting and studied it intensely.
Amazingly, Smith declared that the pigments evident in Sabatino’s painting were a match for those used in 1930s Europe. But that wasn’t the only good news the research center had for Sabatino.
The real revelation was the right thumbprint that they had noticed while the painting was undergoing analysis. “You would clearly see that it was a partial fingerprint, which would have occurred as the artist picked up the piece before that surface coating was completely dry,” Smith told NBC New York.
The fingerprint was sent to Washington, D.C. for further testing. If it proves genuine, then that would mean Sabatino is in possession of the only known work of Picasso’s to have used gum bichromate.
For some, however, it doesn’t need that extra bit of verification. Fine art appraiser Richard Beau Lieu, for instance, has gone on record as saying that Sabatino’s artwork is the “real deal” and is worth an incredible $13 million.
And that estimate would only go higher if the thumbprint comes back as genuine. So for now, Carl Sabatino has sensibly secreted the painting away in a flame-resistant case in a secret site until the final word is out.