PHILADELPHIA — It took a few days for the art researchers to round up the elderly, part-time custodian. He held the key to a storeroom at a local high school.
When the custodian was finally located and the storeroom door unlocked, the researchers discovered treasure inside. There next to old yearbooks and dusty footballs was a dirty but stunning oil portrait painted in 1902 by Thomas Eakins -- a work of art worth at least half a million dollars today.
In all, researchers who combed through closets and boiler rooms at 264 Philadelphia public schools last year found 1,188 original works of art, including more than 100 pieces considered museum quality. Among the finds were two portraits by Eakins, the great American realist painter who attended a Philadelphia high school, and paintings by Henry Ossawa Tanner, N.C. Wyeth, Franz Kline and a group of 19th-century American impressionists.
"To find a half-million-dollar portrait propped next to a boiler is pretty remarkable," said Kathleen Bernhardt-Hidvegi, a Chicago art consultant who led a team that scoured the schools for six months and found art worth an estimated $30 million.
"It's a very rich and beautiful collection," she added. "This is a huge find in the art world."
Many of the paintings were collected by school principals or donated by graduating classes over the years. In many cases, they were removed from walls for painting or construction and packed away in storerooms or closets -- only to be overlooked or forgotten for decades.
The Philadelphia School District, as well as its principals and teachers, were unaware that some of the paintings existed, said Natalye Paquin, the district's chief of staff. She said district chief executive Paul Vallas, who had conducted a similar art survey when he headed the Chicago school system, ordered the inventory last year in part because old school records were spotty or incomplete.
Paquin said the extraordinary range of art discovered in Philadelphia might encourage other cities to inventory their own school systems' art holdings. The Chicago survey in the mid-1990s found a rich variety of original artwork worth approximately $20 million. School districts in Boston and Pittsburgh are conducting surveys.
Last week, the Los Angeles Unified School District completed a four-year inventory of its Art and Artifact Collection, according to Richard Burrows, director of arts education. The district owns 85,000 art objects, including paintings, murals, historical artifacts, architectural features and books estimated to be worth about $30 million.
Among the holdings are three bas-relief works by Salvador Dali, a series of landscapes from the 1920s and 1930s, Greek coins and 34,000 original photographs. Burrows said most items were donated by graduating classes or by local businesses.
Bernhardt-Hidvegi said the Philadelphia collection was more varied and valuable than the works found in the Chicago schools.
"Rarely is such a vast collection of artwork, one that includes so many pieces by important American artists ... found in a network of buildings within a single public institution," Bernhardt-Hidvegi's firm, Corporate Art Source, wrote in a report. "If only 10% of the works are historically significant or of very high quality, then those pieces alone are enough to make this one of the most remarkable discoveries of artwork in recent history."
Among the most significant finds were the two portraits by Eakins (1844-1916), both of school principals.
The portrait found in the locked storeroom was of John Seely Hart, principal at Central High School, which Eakins attended from 1857 to 1861. The painting was commissioned in 1902 by a school alumnus and presented to Central High School at the dedication of a new building the same year. Eakins painted the portrait from a photograph of Hart, who had died in 1877.
Bernhardt-Hidvegi said she noticed immediately that the portrait was exceptionally well-done, but did not recognize it as an Eakins because it was smeared with dust and dirt. It had been stored in a corner behind two file cabinets.
A second Eakins portrait, of a principal named George W. Fetter, was found hanging outside a principal's office at another school, virtually unnoticed by the daily passing parade of students and teachers. Andrew M. Chiacchierini, an art researcher in Chicago, said the portrait was commissioned by Fetter's students in 1890 to commemorate his 25th year as principal. It is signed "EAKINS 1890."
Chiacchierini, who is writing a book about the Philadelphia school paintings, said he had not been able to determine how much Eakins was paid for the portrait. He estimated it was about $1,000 -- probably lower than his standard commission.
An 1891 landscape by Tanner (1859-1937), a leading African American realist who studied under Eakins, was hanging in the principal's office at Woodrow Wilson Middle School, Chiacchierini said. It was among some 40 original paintings collected by the school's principal in the 1930s under the guidance of Walter E. Baum (1884-1956), a Pennsylvania impressionist whose work is among the paintings surveyed. Records showed that the Tanner landscape was purchased in 1937 for $35.
The painting by Wyeth (1882-1945), the father of painter Andrew Wyeth, is a still life of a vase, a jug and three lemons. It was hanging in the principal's office at Olney High School.
Many of the works have been removed from the schools to be cleaned and stored, Paquin said. The district is deciding, with the help of art professionals, whether to display the works to raise money and whether all the art will be returned to the schools. Members of Philadelphia's School Reform Commission have said that the cash-strapped district is not likely to sell the paintings.
For Bernhardt-Hidvegi, who found 40 paintings in a bicycle storage room at one school, the experience was unforgettable.
"We went in thinking: 'What if we don't find anything?' " she said. "So to discover what we did was like hitting a hole in one in golf. It's thrilling."