FREMONT -- A lucrative piece of art history and a whiff of mystery apparently have been hiding for years in the Patterson House attic, where staffers recently discovered a nearly 90-year-old painting by a famous New York artist.
The portrait of a Patterson family in-law has been appraised at up to $50,000, said Christie Dentry, manager of the Patterson House.
The historic home is part of Ardenwood Historic Farm, a 205-acre Fremont park.
"We call it 'The Mystery Painting,'" Dentry said. "At first, we didn't know who was in the portrait, or who painted it."
Dentry's staffers soon found on the painting the signature of John Koch, an artist known for capturing New York City's social scene in the mid-20th century.
But that raised more questions: How did one of Koch's earliest known paintings end up 3,000 miles from the artist's Manhattan home? And how is it connected to Fremont's Patterson House, a 16-room Victorian-era mansion originally owned by 19th-century gold-miner-turned-farmer, George Washington Patterson?
Patterson House staffers' research into the Koch and Patterson families led to the discovery of an unlikely convergence in Ann Arbor, Mich.
First, they noticed an unmistakable resemblance between the woman in the portrait and family photographs of May Morgan -- the sister-in-law of Henry Patterson, who lived in the Patterson House with his wife Sarah (Morgan's sister).
They then discovered that Morgan in the 1920s lived near the University of Michigan, where her husband Everett Brown taught. At the same time, according to art historians, Koch often sat in on the university's art classes.
It is believed that Brown paid Koch to paint a portrait of Morgan, who is shown sitting in an evening gown, displaying her wedding ring, said Dentry.
"It looks like an engagement portrait, which was common at that time," she said. "And Koch was trying to earn money to go to Paris to study art."
Koch did travel to France before settling in Manhattan, where he earned notoriety and wealth from paintings depicting New York's bohemian life, including nude portraits and scenes of parties thrown by the city's elite. Koch died in 1978.
His early portrait of May Morgan apparently migrated West, becoming one of many forgotten art pieces stored for decades in the Patterson House, Dentry said.
Patterson staffers still are searching for a receipt of payment to Koch and the year the portrait was painted.
"That's part of the mystery -- there are still a few things we don't know about it," Dentry said. "But we can confidently say it was done sometime from 1921-1928; those years match up with Koch's and the Browns' time in Ann Arbor."
Patterson House leaders say they plan to display the portrait at events there.
"Antiques Roadshow," a PBS TV program that visited Santa Clara last month, appraised the painting's value at $45,000-$50,000
"The show is about finding diamonds in the rough and, lucky for us, we did," Dentry said.
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.