Dr. Jim Huffman considered for two weeks whether to put down $900 for a painting he liked at a Lexington antique store.
The London, Ky., ophthalmologist and amateur art collector eventually decided to buy the painting on lay-a-way — paying for it "a little bit at a time," he said.
The 30-by-40 inch river landscape was so dirty, Huffman took it to Cincinnati for cleaning. A few weeks later, an art restoration expert there called Huffman. The expert had found the artist's signature.
That's when Huffman learned that the painting wasn't worth the $900 he'd paid for it.
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It was worth in the neighborhood of $100,000, the appraiser told Huffman.
That's because the painting was by Robert Scott Duncanson, a noted 19th-century artist who was the first African-American painter to gain international recognition.
Huffman said he found the painting in a corner of ClaireBourne Antiques on Nicholasville Road.
Shop owner Dennis Pigg had bought it at an estate sale in Northern Kentucky a few months earlier without knowing anything about its significance.
Huffman's wife, Paula, wasn't enthusiastic about the purchase. "She doesn't like antiques as much as I do, so she didn't want me to buy it," he said.
So he thought about it for a couple of weeks. "Finally, I said, 'Paula, I'm going to buy that painting.' "
Duncanson, the artist, was born in 1821 in New York state. His father was a Canadian of Scottish descent, his mother, an African-American. The family moved to Cincinnati where Duncanson caught the eye of one of the city's wealthiest individuals, Nicholas Longworth.
Longworth commissioned the young artist to paint eight large murals for his house, now the Taft Museum of Art.
In the 1850s, and again during the Civil War, Duncanson lived and traveled in Europe. "That's where he got the recognition," said Ruth Cloudman, chief curator of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. One of his paintings was bought by Queen Victoria.
Today, 22 of Duncanson's works are in the Smithsonian Institution's American Art Museum.
Huffman has loaned his untitled painting to the Speed museum, where it is on view for the indefinite future.
"We're just delighted to have it," Cloudman said.