BY HUGH MUIR

When the curator of Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont in Falmouth spoke to the Stafford County Historical Society last month, the talk was billed as "In Search of Gari Melchers."

Not quite right, Joanna Catron said afterward. Her search has long been for the real Gari Melchers.

Some 2,300 of the celebrated American painter's works have been documented. Nearly three-quarters of them are in the collections at Belmont. The rest are in museums and private collections.

Catron's search involves exposing fakes and misidentified copies that pop up at auctions, on the Internet and in grandma's attic.

"My job is to protect his reputation," Catron said of the artist, who died in 1932 at his home in Falmouth. "I've been looking at Melchers' works for 25 years.

"Every morning, I go on eBay to see what Melchers [works] are for sale," she said. "Some are authentic sketches. Some are clearly copies or printed reproductions of a Melchers. And some are forgeries, meant to deceive."

People also frequently call Catron to report that they found a Melchers forgotten in a relative's attic. "It's usually my job to disabuse them," she said.

After Melchers died, his widow, Corinne, remained on the 27-acre estate. She deeded it and the collection to the commonwealth of Virginia in 1942, and it is administered by the University of Mary Washington.

When Corrine died in 1955, her will gave permission to sell selections from her husband's work "to maintain the property."

Belmont was first opened to the public in 1975. Some 40 duplicates and pictures on similar themes were sold at auction in 1977.

'AN AFFORDABLE ARTIST'

Julius Garibaldi Melchers was born in Detroit in 1860, the son of a sculptor who left Germany during Europe's revolutionary 1840s (hence the Italian patriot's "Garibaldi" for his son's middle name).

He studied in Europe, mostly in Paris and Holland, and worked and lived the last 18 years of his life in Falmouth. Continued interest in him reflects not only appreciation of his international, often impressionistic style, but also the increasing value of his art.

"Melchers can be an affordable artist," Catron said. "You can buy a sketch on eBay for $50 or $60."

But some of his paintings have sold at auction in the high six figures. The known record was the sale in 2004 of "The Embroideress" for $932,000 to a private collector.

If a major Melchers came on the market now, Catron said, it could go for $1 million or more.

CURATOR ON A MISSION

Catron has dedicated her career to the search for Melchers' works.

She went straight to Belmont 26 years ago after earning a bachelor's degree in art history from Mary Washington College and a master's in art history and museum operations at George Washington University.

She is compiling a book that she hopes will be the definitive reference on Melchers. She doesn't know when she will finish it.

Until then, when questions arise about a possible Melchers work, "I'm the last word," she said.

Has she ever been unsure in judging a painting's authenticity?

"Uh-huh," she replied. "I'm careful if I say no. I'm very careful if I say yes. If I'm doubtful, I say the picture is 'problematic.' I say, 'I don't want to include your picture in my book.'"

She does see two or three outright forgeries a year, and lets that be known.

Melchers, Catron said, didn't make it easy to identify his art.

"A lot of his work is not signed," she said. "And when he did sign it, he would use two or three different styles." Also, his subject selections could be repetitive.

"I've identified 105 'mother-and-child' oils, pastels and pen-and-ink sketches by Melchers, many of them variations of the same pose," she said.

The best example is a mother and child titled "Maternity," an oil-on-canvas done in 1896 that is now at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. What appeared to be the same picture showed up on eBay in 2006.

"It was clearly a deliberate fake," Catron said. "It's now known as the 'Rubber Baby,' or is sometimes called 'Melty' because it looks like it is melting."

Catron spotted it during one of her morning eBay surfings and made a call. It was pulled from the bidding.

A TARGET FOR FORGERS

"I've seen an awful lot of funny business," Catron said. "Forgers often pick an artist like Melchers because not many in the public know much about him. Although he was internationally recognized during his lifetime, he's not a hot item now."

So why are his works' prices so strong?

"Tastes are fickle," she said. "Collecting art is a little bit of a crapshoot. You have to have intuition and an experienced eye.

"There are the collectors who say, 'It's worth the price.' There are the speculators who judge what the value may be in the future."

Still, she said, "It's a lot less risky than stocks."

Hugh Muir: 540/735-1975

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