Just as the mouse may be an “unexpected” artistic muse, so a Hollywood kids’ movie about a talking mouse is an unexpected place to find a missing painting from the Hungarian modernist avant-garde.
But that is what happened with “Sleeping Lady with Black Vase,” a 1927–28 artwork by Hungarian painter Róbert Berény: an art historian watching the movie Stuart Little with his daughter noticed the painting hanging in the background and “nearly dropped [her] from my lap,” the Guardian reported.
Berény was part of the Hungarian avant-garde Group of Eight, or The Eight. Active for a brief period in the beginning of the 20th century, the group brought modernist artistic styles like Fauvism and Cubism to Hungary in a series of three important exhibitions. Little information is available about Berény online and in English, but according to Wikipedia, he was active in Hungary’s short-lived attempt at a democratic republic in 1918–19 before fleeing to Berlin the following year. He returned to Hungary in 1926 and remained there until his death in 1953.
The evocative “Sleeping Lady” was shown at a 1928 exhibition in Hungary, after which it was sold to an unknown individual. Gergely Barki, the art historian who recognized the painting in Stuart Little, theorizes that the work probably left the country around the time of World War II. “After the wars, revolutions and tumult of the 20th century, many Hungarian masterpieces are lost, scattered around the world,” he told the Guardian.
Barki spotted the piece while watching Stuart Little on television in 2009. He immediately emailed staff members at Sony and Columbia Pictures, but received no reply for two years. Finally, a former set designer who worked on the movie wrote back to say she’d bought the painting “for next to nothing in an antiques shop in Pasadena, California,” in Barki’s words. She’d since sold it to a collector, who’s now offering it at Judit Virág Gallery and Auction House in Budapest on December 13. Its estimate is listed online as 60,000,000–80,000,000 Hungarian Forints (~$244,314–325,772). Let’s just hope it doesn’t bring any real mice with it.