MADELEINE BRAND, host: This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand.
NOAH ADAMS, host:
And I'm Noah Adams. A well-known painting from the Revolutionary War, a portrait of an African-American sailor now turns out to be an art mystery. The patriot in question is not black as thought but white. The portrait was being restored, cleaned up to hang at the Frances Tavern Museum in New York City, the exhibition titled Fighting for Freedom, Black Patriots and Loyalists. The picture's owner had sent it to Peter Williams in Boston and in his restoration shop the truth came to light. Mr. Williams, when did you first begin to think that this was not a black sailor, but a white sailor?
Mr. PETER WILLIAMS: Well, I was pretty sure when I just saw the picture for the first time just the first thirty seconds that it might be suspect. Because in looking at various portions of the paint found, some of the, well the area on the left side where there was a battle scene going on, the paint found seemed very cracked and aged and it suffered the ravages of time. Whereas over in the area where there was the portrait, the paint seemed very slick and modern and didn't have any cracks, so we were immediately suspicious that this picture might have been started out in the seventeenth or eighteenth century as a portrait of a European white admiral and then in the mid 20th a black face was painted over the white face.
ADAMS: Now, this portrait is owned by Dr. Alexander McBirney, a retired physician in Rhode Island. Did you call him up, what did he say?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Actually, he emailed me after we'd had the painting for over a day and asked me if we had any results. And I emailed him back after seeing the solvent tests and I said, I'm sorry, Dr. McBirney, but the black admiral is really a white guy.
ADAMS: What did he say?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, it took him a while to sort of settle down. But he revealed himself to be a true gentlemen, because he could have kept this secret to himself and sold the painting and made a huge profit, and to the credit of his moral character he decided that he would, he would tell everyone that it was what we had learned.
ADAMS: If this had turned out to be a true portrait of a black patriot, how important a picture is it, has it been, and would it be?
Mr. WILLIAMS: It could have been a great story, because we know that there were, for example there were slave insurrections in the West Indies. If this had turned out to be the leader of the insurrection, the picture could have been worth like, possibly a million dollars. But it turned out that that wasn't the case and so now it's probably worth three thousand dollars.
ADAMS: Now, the New Yorker magazine, in writing about this situation, mentions that it's possible that this is fairly recent, this change to the portrait?
Mr. WILLIAMS: I believe so. I believe that it was probably done in the early '70s, maybe a couple of years before Dr. McBirney bought the picture. In Rhode Island there's a core of collectors who are interested in work by black artists and paintings of black people, and I think this old painting was modified to suit that demand.
ADAMS: And what happens to the portrait now?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Dr. McBirney wanted to continue enjoying the portrait, and so we fixed up the areas where we did tests and I believe it now hangs proudly in his living room.
ADAMS: Peter Williams, the owner of Peter Williams Museum Services in Boston, thank you for talking with us, sir.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Thanks. It was a great pleasure.
ADAMS: And you can see the before and after photos that reveal the painting's true colors at our website, npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.