'Black Admiral' Painting Found to Be a Fraud

Photo of the Revolutionary War-era 'Black Admiral' painting i i

hide captionPhoto of the Revolutionary War-era "Black Admiral" painting that was meant to be a centerpiece of an exhibition about African-American patriots. The pale spots are areas where solvents were tested.

Peter Williams/Museum Services
Photo of the Revolutionary War-era 'Black Admiral' painting

Photo of the Revolutionary War-era "Black Admiral" painting that was meant to be a centerpiece of an exhibition about African-American patriots. The pale spots are areas where solvents were tested.

Peter Williams/Museum Services
Detail of the hand before restoration -- click on 'enlarge' to see the results after the surface bla i i

hide captionDetail of the hand before restoration — click on "enlarge" to see the results after the surface black paint was removed.

Peter Williams/Museum Services
Detail of the hand before restoration -- click on 'enlarge' to see the results after the surface bla

Detail of the hand before restoration — click on "enlarge" to see the results after the surface black paint was removed.

Peter Williams/Museum Services

A portrait of a dashing young sea captain often called the "Black Admiral" was supposed to be a centerpiece for an exhibition of paintings from the Revolutionary War era about black patriots and loyalists. But the portrait, often seen in books on African-American history, was recently discovered to be a fraud.

Peter Williams, an expert on painting restoration, was hired to clean the portrait for an exhibit at the historic Fraunces Tavern Museum titled "Fighting for Freedom: Black Patriots and Black Loyalists." But with a quick dab of special paint remover, he discovered that black paint concealed a portrait of a white sailor underneath.

The painting is owned by Alexander McBirney, a retired doctor living in Rhode Island. Williams says he admires McBirney for wanting the truth to be revealed.

"He could have kept the secret and sold the painting for a huge profit," Williams says.

Williams believes the fraud was probably committed sometime in the early 1970s. He completed the restoration and McBirney kept the painting.

"I believe it now proudly rests in Dr. McBirney's living room," he says.

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