BATESVILLE, Ind. — When Jesse Ronnebaum purchased an old, tattered painting from a yard sale about a decade ago, he convinced the owner to take 50 cents for the piece of art instead of the $1 sticker price. Today, he probably wouldn’t haggle over two quarters, because he’s hoping to sell the painting at auction for around $10,000.
Ronnebaum lives in Batesville, and isn’t quite sure what initially attracted him to the old painting of seven men standing in front of a pool table. Above each man is a painting palette with two names. Whatever the reason for his interest, he handed over the 50 cents and hung it up in his living room. Through burglaries and moves, Ronnebaum has managed to keep the painting for more than 10 years.
Then, one day last week, he noticed the words “Palette and Chisel Club 1910? on the bottom of the artwork. He began researching the painting online, and soon discovered it had roots in Chicago’s famed Palette and Chisel Academy of Fine Arts. The group has been around since 1895, and the men in the paintings were all well-respected artists. Among them was Victor Higgins. In a rare move, each of the seven men took turns painting each other for the work of art.
After discovering the potential significance of his find, Ronnebaum reached out to Curt Churchman in Indianapolis, the owner of Fine Estate Art, Rugs and Gallery. Together, the men came up with a plan to restore the painting and put it up for auction through Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago.
“Because there’s a really great auction coming up in Chicago at the end of May which features a broad array of American art, and it’s Chicago, it seemed perfectly timed,” says Churchman. “As long as restoration goes through like we hope it will, it seemed perfectly timed to take this up there.”
The fact that the painting has seven artists instead of one makes it unique, but it could also mean it will be more difficult to sell.
“If it were a Victor Higgins piece, it could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it’s not a Victor Higgins piece and it’s not L.O. Griffith piece. It’s by all of them. So you need someone who is dialed into Palette and Chisel or turn of the century Chicago art or what have you. It becomes more of a completionist piece for a collection I think,” says Churchman. “On a good day I think it would bring $10,000; maybe more if we saw some excitement. The media exposure certainly helps.”
It’s certainly more money than Ronnebaum thought it was worth, and although he can now celebrate an impending windfall, Churchman has a word of caution for others.
“It’s the rare case,” says Churchman. “I’ll get a call and they’ll say, ‘I’ve got a painting by Smith and I wanted to know what it’s worth,’ and more often than not the story is, ‘It doesn’t appear to be worth much of anything.’ So Jesse’s case is a great one, because this is the one that worked. It’s a Cinderella story.”