• Mary Evans Seeley

"...Greatest Bargain in American Paintings"

Updated: Oct 2, 2018

President and Mrs. Gerald Ford gave a Christmas gift to their White House staff during the Bicentennial in 1976 that had been acclaimed as the "greatest bargain in American paintings."

One of my all-time favorite stories preserved in my book, “Season’s Greetings from the White House” involves the gift print that President and Mrs. Ford gave to their White House staff during the Bicentennial Christmas of 1976. Curator Clem Conger told me, in an interview, the incredible story of how that print, “Philadelphia, 1858”, found a home in the President’s House.

Ferdinand Richardt, an artist from Denmark, sketched the scene, while in America painting Niagara Falls, for which he became quite famous. He finished the street scene and held an exhibition in his studio in London. The Philadelphia scene was purchased by Saler Jung from Hyderabad, India. When Jung died, his estate was liquidated. It was in India that New York art dealer, Albert Nestle, found a canvas that he believed depicted Colonial America. Despite the fact that it was in shocking condition, Nestle purchased it for $7.00 and shipped it back to New York. Deciding it was too expensive to restore, he sold the painting of "Philadelphia 1858" to a gallery for a modest price.

According to Conger, when this piece of American history was featured in Antiques Magazine, it became known as “the greatest bargain in American paintings in the history of the world”. Sometime later, Joseph Levine purchased the painting and gave it to the White House in memory of the late John F. Kennedy.

When I interviewed Betty Ford for the book, I told her this little known story. Twenty years earlier, she had requested Hallmark Cards to reproduce the painting and publish 5000 gift prints for her and President Ford to give to their staff for Christmas.

Today “Independence Hall in Philadelphia” hangs on a wall in the Green Room of the White House.

Find this and more fascinating stories in the newest edition of my book, "Season's Greetings from the White House."

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