AUGUSTA — Augusta native William Herbert “Buck” Dunton would leave Maine for Taos, New Mexico, where he helped found what would become a prominent colony of artists while becoming an accomplished artist renowned for his Western work.
Before leaving Maine, Dunton gave seven finely detailed oil paintings of drama-and-action-packed Civil War scenes to his native city. He had just one request: that the works be displayed together in public.
City officials have said they’ve treasured the paintings and enjoyed looking at them for years, since they were put on display in 1998 at Augusta City Center after being rediscovered deep inside a vault at the former Cony High School flatiron building. They’ve learned others appreciate Dunton’s art as well.
So much so the seven paintings are worth about $500,000, according to a Boston fine arts appraiser who frequently appraises items on the PBS television series “Antiques Roadshow.” That was a surprise to City Manager William Bridgeo, who said he had no clue the paintings were worth that much. There is no indication in a roughly 2-inch-think folder of paperwork about the paintings that the city had them appraised previously, Bridgeo said.
The paintings have been on display on the second floor of Augusta City Center since the city spent about $20,000 to have them restored and re-framed in 1998. Since being appraised this summer by Colleene Fesko, a Boston-based fine art and antiques appraiser and broker, the paintings have since been added to the city’s insurance policy, and additional security measures have been put in place to protect them, including closed-circuit television cameras.
“I’ve been walking by them for 20 years, I’ve always loved them, but I never really thought too much about them,” Bridgeo said of the Dunton paintings, which were done in the black and white “en grisaaille,” or in gray, format so they could be reproduced as cover illustrations in Cosmopolitan Magazine. “Anybody would have assumed they had value. But there is no document I can find that indicates there was an appraisal done” previously.
Fesko, who was paid about $750 in city funds to come to Augusta to appraise the paintings, wrote in her findings:
“Dunton loved the outdoors — first in Maine and later in the Southwest. He also admired what nature brought out in people; from adrenalin rushes to complete tranquility, from acts of giddy exuberance to those of altruistic heroism. While Dunton was born after the end of the Civil War and the paintings completed in 1910, we can see him reference these sentiments in the paintings. Action packed and beautifully composed, each painting would be complete in itself; but as a group they tell an arresting story. While Dunton ultimately moved from illustration to easel painting, this group is truly a masterwork of the genre, and an enlightened and generous gift to Augusta.”
In the mid 1990s, Fred Kahl, now network administrator for both the city and schools in Augusta, worked at the since replaced former Cony High School, where he taught drafting and did some IT work. One day while digging around in the back of a vault at Cony, looking for old student records, Kahl came across the stored works of art. He had no clue what they were, but could tell they probably had some historical value, so he alerted school administrators.
“I found them, they were in terrible frames, I said to myself, ‘these deserve better treatment,’” Kahl said. “I think they’re remarkable.”
Later then-superintendent H. Graham Nye proposed to sell the paintings to help fund the schools, but that process was halted after Mark O’Brien, then chairman of the school board and now an at-large city councilor, urged the schools to research the paintings and their ownership.
Bridgeo said that research indicated the paintings had been given to the city in 1915 by Dunton, who was born on Sewall Street in 1878, prior to him leaving Maine for New Mexico where he helped found the Taos Society of Artists. He asked that the paintings, which portray the Civil War exploits of General Nelson Miles, be displayed as a group.
Which, at least initially, they were. Bridgeo said the paintings were displayed at Lithgow Public Library until 1932, then moved to Cony where they were exhibited in the main stairway, until they were placed in storage for decades, not to pop up again until Kahl found them in the 1990s.
Mary Mayo-Wescott, then a city councilor, served as chairwoman of a committee that was formed to determine what to do with the paintings. The group decided to restore them, have them re-framed and preserved, and put them back on display where the public could see them.
“They are magnificent paintings,” Mayo-Wescott said of the works of art. “They’re oil paintings but they look like photographs. The committee was passionate about saving them.”
Mayo-Wescott said she thought the city had the paintings appraised, but said she didn’t have records of their appraisal.
She thinks the city should keep the paintings, not sell them to potentially collect $500,000 for them, because they are part of Augusta’s history, and created by an Augusta native.
Bridgeo said he has no plans to sell the paintings.
“I think there would be a firestorm of public resistance to that,” he said.
That Bridgeo had the paintings appraised at all is a matter of happenstance.
In May Bridgeo gave a presentation on leadership at an International City Management Association seminar for state managers’ associations of Montana and Wyoming, in Cody, Wyoming. During his trip there he checked out the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, which he said contains a vast array of original Western-themed art. He said while touring the museum he was drawn to a wall-sized painting of a grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. He then saw it was done by none other than Augusta native Dunton.
Upon returning to Maine Bridgeo and Loretta Lathe, executive assistant, searched online for information on Dunton and his art. They found a link to an episode of Antiques Roadshow on which they saw Fesko advise a woman with a Dunton painting she had brought to be appraised that Dunton’s work was renowned, had seen a resurgence in popularity, and was quite valuable.
So Bridgeo called Fesko who agreed to come to Augusta to appraise the works.
The paintings, when they were restored and re-framed in the late 1990s, were enclosed in special glass to protect them from ultraviolet light. Fesko said the paintings appear to be in good or stable condition and she did not recommend any additional measures for their current location.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647
The seven paintings given to the city of Augusta by accomplished artist and Augusta native W. Herbert Dunton, depicting Civil War scenes, are seen Friday at the Augusta City Center. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)
Mary Mayo-Wescott with the seven paintings given to the city of Augusta by accomplished artist and Augusta native W. Herbert Dunton, depicting Civil War scenes. The paintings are on display at the Augusta City Center. Mayo-Wescott was part of a city government committee that arranged to preserve and display the paintings. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)