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LeBARON: Hidden gem among Modini Ranch finds

A small oil painting of a big-horned sheep standing on a mountain top is the work of Albert Bierstadt.

Published: Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 12:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 12:39 p.m.

The Modini Ranch stories just keep coming. And the Modini gifts just keep on giving.

The 1,700 acres in the mountains of northeastern Sonoma County became a nature preserve earlier this year when the estate of Shirley and Jim Modini, who had lived and loved the ranch for the 60 years of their marriage, was settled. But that wasn't the first story. Nor will it be the last.

The first was the Modinis' decision to sell the development rights on the ranch that had been in Jim's family for 150 years to the Open Space District, keeping the land “forever wild.” Then came the childless couple's determination to find the right guardian to inherit the land and everything on it. The gift was given to Audubon Canyon Ranch.

Now we have another story. This one came out of the basement at the ranch house. But it could have come from an episode of “Antiques Roadshow.”

A small oil painting of a big-horned sheep standing on a mountain top will be auctioned next week at Bonhams in New York City. It is expected to bring somewhere from $30,000 to $50,000. Maybe more. With the Modini “mojo” at work, who knows where it will end?

The painting is the work of Albert Bierstadt, the Hudson River School artist, whose glorious landscapes captured the beauty of California and the West in the years following the Gold Rush.

Prized by collectors, Bierstadt is best known for his large canvases of Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada. But he also did a few portrait-like paintings of individual animals, including Rocky Mountain sheep, which would describe the ram on the 14” X 20” canvas that stood guard in the Modini basement for who knows how many years.

That's right — the basement! The painting didn't exactly occupy a place of honor in the household. It was down there hanging on the wall behind the freezer — out of sight, out of mind.

Marsha Simmonsia, the Modinis' last caregiver, is the only one who even remembers seeing it. “I'd look at it once in a while,” she says, “but it was hard to make out. It was pretty dark down there.”

We all know how it is with basements and attics and even garages. Things go into them and never come out, until they overflow with “stuff.”

In fact, “Stuff Central” was the name that Modini neighbor and trustee Judy Johnston gave to the empty building in downtown Healdsburg where the contents of the Modinis' home were taken, to be sorted for the giant estate sale last fall.

The Bierstadt ram came dangerously close to being tossed out. Or, at best, being sold at the sale for 20 bucks — just a grimy little painting with a small tear in the canvas.

That's what would have happened, Johnston says, if Tim Gordy from Gold Bloom in Healdsburg had not come to help price the jewelry for the sale, and spotted it. He took a close look, saw the initials “A.B.” in the lower left corner and suggested, “Somebody should look at this.”

Gordy later said that he certainly did not think of Bierstadt when he saw it, but only that “It caught my eye.” Johnston, a successful entrepreneur, willingly admits she knows nothing about art. So she invited her friend Adriane Iann, who sits on the board of San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, to come to Healdsburg for lunch — and look at the painting.

Iann confirmed Gordy's assessment, telling Johnston, “This needs to be evaluated. Take it to Bonhams.”

So the ram got himself a “Not for Sale” sticker and, in early October, Johnston put the painting in the back of her car and took it to San Francisco for the fine art auction house's one-day-a-month public appraisal session.

The first question from the art appraiser, Johnston recalls, was, “Where did you get this?”

Johnston told her it came from her neighbor's basement.

It turned out to be an exciting day for Johnston and, as the news spread, for the Modini Ranch staff and the Audubon Canyon Ranch organization.

Aaron Bastian, Bonhams' American art expert, confirmed what had been hinted at. It could, indeed, be a Bierstadt.

It was covered with years of propane film and had that small tear in the canvas, but, not to worry, he said. It could be repaired easily.

Johnston, who had never heard of Bierstadt, was nonetheless impressed because Bastian seemed so interested. Johnston signed the papers consigning the painting to Bonhams for restoration and evaluation and then, as she leaving, she asked, almost as a by-the-way, “How much do you think it's worth?”

“Between $30,000 and $50,000.” he said.

“Oh my God! Johnston messaged the Modini staff, “That little ripped thing!”

Johnston has her plane ticket to New York to be at the American Art auction at Bonhams on Madison Avenue on May 22 when the painting will be sold to the high bidder on behalf of Audubon Canyon Ranch. It is #85, following #84, a large Bierstadt landscape valued between $300,000 and a half-million. Johnston wants to see who buys it.

I think she wants to tell them the story.

No question that it's a long way from the Modini basement to Madison Avenue. But what about the farther-back back-story?

Where the Modinis got the painting is a mystery. Albert Bierstadt died in 1903. Did he pass this way? It wasn't painted at the ranch, that's certain. There are all kinds of wild creatures in those mountains, but big-horned sheep aren't among them.

If it was handed down through family members, Jim never mentioned it. And Jim was one who would say to Marsha or friends, “You know, there's some old china in the basement that belonged to Shirley's mother” — or “some arrowheads,” or “Indian baskets” or even “some old furniture” — “that might just be worth something.” But never a word about the painting of the ram.

The answer may be in Jim's journals. These constitute another treasure from the magic basement.

Jim started keeping a journal in his teens, in the mid-1930s, and was remarkably consistent through the years, writing in his neat penmanship about everyday life on the ranch, occasionally inserting a map or a tiny drawing of an animal encounter.

The journals are now at the Schulz Library at Sonoma State University, awaiting acquisition to Special Collections where they will be accessible to students and to the public, by appointment. Maybe, who knows, readers will find clues to the Bierstadt bonanza.

There are 46 of them, old-fashioned ledgers and notebooks, stretching almost four feet on a shelf.

They are a 70-year history of ranch life here and will certainly be of interest to students of local and Western history. Watch for a thesis or two coming to a university near you.

Another Modini story. And gift.

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