It’s the secret that was hidden in a crawlspace on Staten Island for years until broadcast executive Carl Sabatino discovered it tucked underneath his aunt’s sewing machine.
The New Jersey native found the possible Pablo Picasso piece after his aunt, Jenny Verastro, mentioned the artwork while lying on her deathbed in 2004.
He said he moved the sewing machine, and “it just came flying out, literally in my lap. And I began to cry."
Sabatino's uncle Nicky Verrastro had bought the piece on a street corner in London for £10, or roughly $10, while serving as a soldier during World War II. Sabatino recalls seeing the picture of a lady in a fuzzy hat hanging on his aunt’s wall during his childhood but never thought much about it.
The lady turned out to be a recreation of Picasso’s “Woman with a Cape,” which has been hanging at the Cleveland Museum since 1956. A top executive at a New York auction house dismissed Sabatino’s “find,” saying it was a $10 poster.
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“She threw it back at me, just left-handedly, I’ll never forget it,” he said.
That was 11 years ago. He set out to prove her, and any other critics, wrong.
“And the journey began with, what the heck is it?” he said.
Sabatino worked backwards in time, studying Picasso and his life in Paris in the years before the war. He says he found evidence that in 1936, Picasso had experimented with a fine art photographic technique called gum bichromate.
Gum bichromate combines photographic techniques and original coloring with pigments to create a new work. Sabatino turned to science to analyze the chemicals in the portrait and verify his story.
Dr. Kenneth Smith, president of the Center for Art Materials Analysis in Westmont, Illinois, said his team extracted small amounts of pigment from the artwork with a fine needle.
“An area about the size of a period out of a sentence was removed and transferred to a microscopic slide,” Smith said.
He found pigments consistent with the place and time that Picasso would have produced the work: Europe in the 1930s. Smith was intrigued by something else: a partial right thumbprint on the side of the work that could be from the artist himself.
“You would clearly see that it was a partial fingerprint, which would have occurred as the artist picked up the piece before that surface coating was completely dry,” Smith said.
If verified, it’s believed that print would be the first of Picasso’s ever left on one of his works. The piece has now been sent down to a forensic lab near Washington, D.C. for verification.
Richard Beau Lieu, an internationally known Picasso expert and art appraiser in Boynton Beach, Florida, agrees that the finding could be life-changing. He’s now appraised the art for $13 million due to the current evidence, but if more evidence comes through he believes the figure would go even higher.
Part of the appeal is the medium, since this would be the first gum bichromate piece by Picasso ever discovered. “It’s terribly significant,” Beau Lieu told the I-Team.
Beau Lieu is paid by the hour and receives no financial interest from sellers, but he knows he is still taking a risk on his reputation with this estimate.
“Wait and see. There’s always going to be skeptics. I’m convinced this is the real deal,” he said.
For now, Sabatino has the work safeguarded in a fireproof case in a secure location in the tri-state area. He sees the piece as redemption for his working-class Italian aunts and uncles, who struggled to get by but always loved the arts.
“It’s a treasure hunt. But a treasure hunt with emotion,” he said, “And what you’re left with is: it’s Picasso.”