‘Stuart Little’ Saves Hungarian Masterpiece

A still from Stuart Little (1999) with Róbert Berény's Sleeping Lady with Black Vase in the background.

Nearly 100 years after Hungarian painter Róbert Berény’s Sleeping Lady with Black Vase disappeared, the work has been recovered due to a most-unlikely turn of events. As the Guardian initially reported, art historian Gergely Barki was watching the 1999 classic children’s film Stuart Little in 2009 when he noticed Berény’s painting hanging on a wall behind Hugh Laurie.

Barki had only ever seen the work in a photograph taken during its last-known exhibition in 1928. However, he recognized Berény’s canvas immediately and nearly dropped his daughter out of surprise. “A researcher can never take his eyes off the job, even when watching Christmas movies at home,” Barki told the Guardian.

An email to the film’s producers failed to produce any actionable leads for its recovery, but Barki persisted and contacted every crew member on the film for whom he could get an email address. As the he told NPR: “Finally, about a month later or so, I received an email from the assistant set designer and she answered it – hi, Gergely, the painting is with me in my home. Whenever you come to the U.S., you are more than welcome to see the painting in real.”

As Barki was soon to discover, the unnamed set designer had paid a mere $500 for the painting at an antique store. Now safely back in Hungary thanks to Barki’s efforts, the work is due to be sold at auction and carries a presale estimate of $240,000–$325,000.

It’s unclear how the painting came to the US in the first place. Barki speculates that a Jewish collector could have purchased the painting from the 1928 exhibition. That suggests more provenance research should likely be done before the painting hits the auction block. But Barki also cautions that many works from Hungary simply disappeared during the numerous wars and revolutions that plagued the country throughout the 20th century.

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