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How a small movie scene in 'Stuart Little' helped find a long-lost Hungarian masterpiece

A Hungarian art researcher couldn't believe his eyes when he spotted the oil painting in the backdrop of one of the film scenes.

How a small movie scene in 'Stuart Little' helped find a long-lost Hungarian masterpiece
Cover Image Source: Hugh Laurie, Jonathan Lipnicki and Geena Davis pose for a family portrait in a scene from the film 'Stuart Little', 1999. (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)

Róbert Berény was one of the greatest Hungarian poster artists in the early 1900s, known for his expressionism and cubism art. One of his paintings, 'Sleeping Lady with Black Vase,' came to be known as a masterpiece. In 1928, the painting was presented at an exhibition by the Munkácsy Guild. Strangely enough, after this exhibition, the painting disappeared, per The Guardian. It wasn’t until 2009 that the missing masterpiece was discovered by a researcher immersed in watching TV with his daughter.


In 2009, 43-year-old Gergely Barki, a researcher at the Hungarian National Gallery, sat on his couch to watch “Stuart Little” with his young daughter Lola. It was then that his gaze fixated on something familiar in the film scene. He noticed a painting that appeared as a prop in the backdrop of a scene showing Stuart’s family. The painting hung on the wall between two lamps tight above the fireplace. After looking at it repetitively, he became certain that it was none other than Berény’s long-vanished 'Sleeping Lady with Black Vase.'


“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Berény’s long-lost masterpiece on the wall behind Hugh Laurie. I nearly dropped Lola from my lap,” said Barki. “A researcher can never take his eyes off the job, even when watching Christmas movies at home.” Intrigued by the discovery, Barki, who was writing a biography of Berény, felt like a sleuth hunting for a clue. He wrote e-mails to everyone involved in the film. One of the employees, a set designer for films, responded two years later.


“She said the picture had been hanging on her wall,” Barki recalled. “She had snapped it up for next to nothing in an antiques shop in Pasadena, California, thinking its avant-garde elegance was perfect for Stuart Little’s living room,” Barki revealed that the employee had picked up the painting in a Pasadena-based antiques shop for just $500. She was probably unaware of the real identity of the masterpiece.

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She used the painting as a background prop for the family house setting in the Hollywood film "Stuart Little." When the production equipment was packed off, she carried the painting from the studio and hung it in her apartment as a decorative showpiece. “I had a chance to visit her and see the painting and tell her everything about the painter,” said Barki. “She was very surprised.”

Later, she sold the painting to a private art collector. The artwork was put up for an auction sale in Budapest at the Virag Judit Galleria. According to Nicole Waldner, the painting was auctioned off on December 13, 2014 at this gallery with a starting price of $136,000. It was purchased for a quarter of a million dollars, the highest price ever paid for a Róbert Berény painting. From Berény’s art studio to the set of "Stuart Little" to an art lover’s apartment wall, the painting has traveled a long journey.


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