Oddly Enough

Frugal librarian amassed $8 million art trove

LONDON (Reuters) - From the outside it’s an ordinary, red-brick house in a terraced row, not unlike tens of thousands of others scattered across Britain.

But on the inside, Jean Preston’s spartan Oxford home contained works of art of international significance, carefully acquired over a lifetime and haphazardly displayed.

Preston, a thrifty 77-year-old spinster who rode the bus and ate frozen meals, died in 2006. But art experts and auctioneers have now completed the sale of the exceptional works hoarded in her modest home.

The auctions have raised an estimated 4 million pounds ($7.95 million), according to valuers, about 20 times the price of the house they were kept in, stunning experts and Preston’s relatives alike.

Among the treasures were two paintings by Fra Angelico, the 15th century Italian Renaissance master, that were the missing pieces of an eight-part altar decoration.

They were sold together for $3.4 million and are expected to be returned to the Uffizi Gallery, Florence’s famed art museum.

“We knew we were going to a house that contained some important works,” Guy Schwinge of Dukes art auctioneers in Dorchester, which helped with the sale, told Reuters.

“But I was amazed to see quite how many treasures there were ... The Fra Angelicos were behind the bedroom door and we only spotted them on the way out.”

Hanging in the kitchen was a 19th century watercolor by pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and in the sitting room, above an electric fire, a work by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

Those two, estimated to be worth $2 million, have been saved for Britain and are expected to go on display at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, Schwinge said.

Another hidden treasure was a rare edition of the works of Chaucer that was too big to fit on Preston’s bookshelf and was found buried in a wardrobe. It sold for nearly $150,000.

“We often go to fabulous homes to evaluate artworks, but in this case the house was just so modest from the outside, and had very modest decor on the inside too,” said Schwinge.

“It’s just rare to stumble across something quite so breathtaking.”

Preston, who worked as a librarian for much of her life, inherited many of the works from her father, a keen collector. Her relatives were stunned by the artworks she had tucked away.

“My aunt bought her clothes from a catalog, ate frozen meals and went everywhere on the bus,” the Daily Mail newspaper quoted one of them as saying.

“Who would have thought she had the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket in her spare room all these years?”

Editing by Paul Casciato