Imagine this: A priceless Picasso work, its existence a secret shared by few, resurfaces a half-century later. At an estate sale in suburban New Jersey. Tucked inside a frame, and hidden behind another work of art.
Art collector Keith Coppola says the truth is beyond anyone’s imagination — and insists he’s not tilting at windmills with his tale of discovering the long-unseen Picasso depicting Don Quixote and sidekick Sancho Panza while buying $75 worth of art in the Garden State.
The work, dated Feb. 11, 1955, and delivered to the land of Springsteen only months later, is the real deal, confirmed by years of digging and authenticated by a cadre of world-renowned experts, according to Coppola.
He’s invested more than a dozen years trying to convince the Picasso estate of the masterpiece’s existence, a quest that brings to mind a familiar character of fiction.
“The whole thing is like everybody has said to me, ‘You’re Don Quixote! You’ve become him,’” acknowledges Coppola. “Nobody believes you, it’s so far fetched that you almost don’t want to believe me. But then again, I’ve got so much evidence that you’ve got to believe me if you really look at it.”
The ink brush work of the two characters conjured by author Miguel de Cervantes in the early 17th century was created well before Picasso’s academically accepted second incarnation, he said. That version, signed by the artist on Aug. 10, 1955, remains stored inside a basement vault at France’s St. Denis Church.
The work was featured in the French weekly journal Les Lettres Francaises to celebrate the 350th anniversary of part one of Cervantes’s epic novel “Don Quixote,” released in 1605.
But Coppola can spend hours recounting the minutia of his February artwork and its multiple contrasts with the later piece: Its subtle incorporation of the constellations in homage to Picasso’s late wife, a hidden phallic symbol, the open mouth of the ass belonging to Sancho — and even its size: 62 inches by 48 inches, compared to 65 by 50 in the version known to the world.
Coppola, 55, a former Jersey guy now in South Carolina, notes the February date on his work coincides with the death of Picasso’s wife of 37 years and longtime muse, ballerina Olga Khokhlova — a pivotal link to the truth.
“She was Picasso’s goddess, a spiritual inspiration,” he said, ”and now she is denied her existence in the capacity that he memorialized her. Without Olga, there would be no Don Quixote.”
He also cites a diary of Picasso pal Peter Smith with a December 1955 entry specifically noting “Arthur and Margarita have gone back to NJ with a don Quixote P has given them. Remove large.”
The reference is to Arthur Getz and Margarita Gibbons, two friends of the artist.
Smith, in an earlier entry, also made reference to the earlier Picasso work on March 17, 1955. And since the other Don Quixote was unquestionably created seven months later, Coppola said, the truth of his work is impossible to deny.
Experts at the renowned Sotheby’s auction house declined to weigh in, citing a “no comment” policy on unverified works. An email to equally well-known Christie’s auction house about the piece went unanswered.
And the Picasso Succession, in an email from the Paris headquarters where it oversees the artist’s estate, Coppola suggested simply unearthed “a reproduction of the drawing made by a Communist Association in the 1960s” based on his initial 2010 appeal to the group.
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“The Succession states that the work may be a Les Letters Francaises reproduction, which is certainly an error on their part,” responded Coppola. “Additionally the work done for the Communist Party is the August Don Quixote, not my work.”
The estate failed to mention a second submission from Coppola four years later with more evidence, and an in-person attempt for verification that produced no resolution in 2015. A scheduled 2020 live meeting was canceled by COVID-19, and Coppola’s still waiting for another chance at showing his piece to the Picasso gate-keepers.
The Daily News was allowed to view the work, although not to take any photos.
Coppola, in addition to his own art experts, hired specialists in forgeries, paper, ink, canvas and even the artist’s signature to examine the piece, with all echoing his conclusion. A Christie’s expert once examined the earlier Don Quixote, stopping just short of a stamp of approval but clearly swayed, he recalled.
“It’s a masterpiece,” Coppola insists. “And one that’s magical beyond belief.”
The veteran art collector, who nearly lost the one-of-a-kind work in an apartment fire before realizing its value, plans to release a series of NFTs linked to his “Don Quixote” in an effort to both let people decide for themselves —and to goad the Picasso estate into taking another look.
“We want to put it in the court of public opinion, because we have so much evidence,” he said. “We feel that instead of going back and forth with the Picassos, we’ll let anybody who has an opinion — they can fight it out.”