Frisco man discovers he owns Italian masterpiece

WFAA 18 February 2010
By David Schechter

FRISCO — Bill Pentak Sr. has an eye for art and the heart of a detective.

He's needed both qualities to finally identify the simple, graceful woman painted in a portrait he first saw more than 30 years ago.

"My wife kept saying, 'She's just about become your mistress,'" said the 77-year-old Frisco man.

Pentak first saw the painting in 1977 at an Austin gallery owned by a German man who said he was a Nazi sympathizer. Pentak said he began to wonder if the painting had been stolen during World War II.

"He said, 'My father was in the SS.'" Pentak said. "He was real proud of that."

Six years later, Pentak once again saw the painting at a bankruptcy sale and bought it for only $2,000. While he said he knew it was a good painting, he knew little else. 

So, in his free time, he started scouring books at art libraries.

He never found a thing until 2008, which was when a museum curator suggested Pentak have his painting X-rayed. What the X-ray revealed is a very big deal, according to Dr. Jeffrey Fontana, an Austin College art historian.

When the X-ray was flipped over, it revealed where the artist made a first attempt at the portrait and then painted over it.

"It means that someone was using this occasion to produce something new,” Fontana said.

However, there was still the question of who had painted the portrait. That answer finally arrived when an art expert came across a book cataloging the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, Hungary.

"I couldn't believe it," Pentak said. "I could not believe that this is our painting.”

The artist is Johann Karl Loth, who worked in Venice and died in 1698. The woman painted in the portrait is Ceres, the Greek goddess of fertility. The book said the work belonged to the collection of Prince Nicolas II of Hungary.

"We did get lucky,” Pentak said.

Well, that was what Pentak thought.

The museum informed Pentak through e-mail that his painting is a copy.

"Don't you know they would say that," Pentak said. "They want to protect theirs.”

However, Sotheby's Auction House in New York has concluded Pentak's version "to be by Johann Karl Loth." It conservatively values the painting at a value of at least $60,000.

Pentak said the Hungarian museum told him it also has an X-ray of its painting. But he said the museum will not show it to him.

News 8 contacted the Hungarian museum in an attempt to resolve the issue. They now concede that a copy is hanging on their wall, and that Pentak has the original.

To Bill Pentak, the most important thing about the piece is how it reminds  him of his mother.

"My mother was red-headed, the same as this," he said. "In is some respects, I could swear, sometimes it looks almost like my mother. I've never told that to anybody. Nothing like a momma... nothing like a momma."

And it's hard to put a value on that.

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