For Wendy Hawkins, it seems like just another ordinary day. She’s at the thrift store where she volunteers, sorting through all the unwanted artworks that have been donated there. These pieces tend to fetch anywhere between $10 and $50 each, but sometimes one shows up that’s a little more special than the rest. Today, it turns out, is one of those rare occasions. Lying on the ground right now is something that Hawkins senses is exceptional – and she’s right. This work, incredibly, was created by one the greatest artists in modern history.
To say that this development was a surprise would be putting it mildly. After all, things like this just don’t usually happen in the sleepy towns along the mid-section of America’s eastern seaboard. But then again, the North Carolina community of Kitty Hawk has something of a track record when it comes to influential people and historic events.
When the Wright Brothers were developing their flying machine in 1900, Kitty Hawk served as the perfect place to test its capabilities. The town, after all, is built close to hills that are ideal for launching gliders skywards, plus there’s plenty of wind that sweeps through the area. And all that sand along the coast would’ve made for a soft landing, should things have gone awry. With all that in mind, the Wrights worked away in the town for three years,and they famously achieved man’s first ever powered flight in 1903.
That was a long time ago, though, and Kitty Hawk has since maintained a pretty low profile. The community seems to pride itself on maintaining a quaint, quiet vibe, away from the hustle and bustle of more urbanized areas. But despite the community’s seeming calm, the eyes of the world turned back to it in March 2020.
That was when media outlets got wind of Hawkins’ discovery at the town’s Hotline Pink Thrift Shop. Ordinarily just a normal place, this store is actually one of five outlets run by the non-profit organization Hotline. These shops sell stuff like clothes, books and tools – anything that’s donated to them – in order to raise money for local services and initiatives.
Really, then, this thrift store isn’t exactly the type of place you’d expect to attract so much global attention. But that’s really a testament to the magnitude of Hawkins’ find. Somehow, the work of a legendary artist had ended up at her low-key workplace. And that means, bizarrely, that its previous owner had given it away for free, either knowingly or in ignorance of its true value.
Thanks to her role at the thrift store, Hawkins was well used to sorting through lots of old artworks. After all, she showed up there a couple of times a week in order to help out. So, maybe all that time surrounded by art had turned her into something of an expert?
After all, Hawkins was immediately struck with a vivid sense that this particular piece was extra special. Whereas another person may simply have seen an old and dusty wood engraving of no particular value, she knew otherwise. Something about it just stood out from all the other works in the store.
Speaking to news website WAVY, Hawkins recalled the moment she had found the piece. “Sometimes when the paintings or pictures are in frames that are broken – and it was kind of dirty – they get passed by,” she said. “One day I saw this, with a bunch of other paintings lined up on the floor, and I said, ‘This is old, this is something special.’”
The piece depicts a man decked out in red robes, with a lady dressed in blue looming over him. There’s a weird, distorted feel to the scene, clearly the work of a person drawn to strangeness. But who was it that created such a work? Well, Hawkins was determined to find out.
Hawkins decided to bring the artwork along to a local expert to see what she thought. Melanie Smith runs the Seaside Art Gallery in Nags Head, a town situated just down the road from Kitty Hawk. With years of professional experience, Smith was the perfect person to look over the mysterious wood engraving.
After Hawkins delivered the artwork to Smith, the art expert removed it from its old frame. She cleared away all the dirt and grime that had accumulated over the years, and then she took a proper look. It must have been quite a shock for Smith, because all the evidence pointed to something incredible: this artwork had been created by none other than the acclaimed modern master Salvador Dalí.
Born in Spain in 1904, Dalí’s fame is such that he now ranks among the most famous artists the world has ever known. His works were completed with meticulous care, yet the things they depicted were often bizarre and provocative. More than that, the man presented himself to the world in a notably extreme way, often courting controversy as a result.
In terms of his artistic output, Dalí was known for producing works that explored the enigmatic depths of the subconscious mind. He was a leading exponent of surrealism, a movement of the 20th century practiced across a variety of formats. As a surrealist, Dali attempted to tap into the imagination at the expense of rationality.
There were a number of motifs that regularly cropped up in Dalí’s work. For example, he often painted elephants with long, fragile legs, which subverted our usual notions of the creatures’ colossal mass. Ants also showed up in his work a lot, as did images of watch faces and clocks turning to liquid.
In what is arguably Dalí’s most famous work, both these symbols are combined. The Persistence of Memory is widely lauded as being among the greatest works of the 20th century, a comment upon the relative nature of time and space. Today, it’s one of the world’s most iconic and recognizable works of art.
Dalí was also fond of double images, as can be seen in one of his other famous works, Swans Reflecting Elephants. This piece depicts three birds gazing down into a river, where their reflection takes the form of a trio of the land giants. As with The Persistence of Memory, this painting is considered to be one of the most influential surrealist works of all time.
For a glimpse into Dalí’s approach to his art, we can consult a particular quote from the man himself. “A true painter is one who can paint extraordinary scenes in the middle of an empty desert,” he once said. “A true painter is one who can patiently paint a pear in the midst of the tumults of history.”
Of course, Dalí himself was as famous for his garish way of life as he was for his art. He was unashamedly arrogant, as can be seen in another one of his remarks. In his own words, “Each morning when I awake, I experience again a supreme pleasure – that of being Salvador Dalí.”
Despite the sometimes-controversial aspects of Dalí’s personality, there’s no questioning his artistic influence. His reach was profound, and he’s today remembered as one of the most important artists of his generation. So, with that in mind, how on earth did one of his pieces end up at a thrift store in North Carolina?
Well, it turns out that similar situations have arisen before. Sticking with North Carolina, for example, a guy in the city of Asheville once found a sweater in a thrift store that turned out to be extremely special. This person liked the look of the garment, so he forked out a tiny amount of money and brought it home.
Months went by without incident, but one day a documentary about former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi was on this guy’s TV. Amazingly, the film showed Lombardi in that same sweater that the guy had bought a few months previously. He later sold it, picking up more than $40,000 for the garment at auction.
Elsewhere, over in Clintonville, Ohio, a piece of art created by Dalí’s contemporary Pablo Picasso was found in a thrift store. This happened back in 2012 when Zach Bodish was browsing and stumbled upon an interesting poster. He liked the look of the thing and decided to cough up a little over $14 for the piece.
But when Bodish arrived back home, he decided to do a little online investigating to see if he could find out more about his new poster. And it wasn’t long before he discovered that this linocut was actually a rare copy in a series of 100 posters produced by Picasso himself. With that, he later sold it for the hefty sum of $7,000.
So, there are precedents for the bizarre situation in which Hawkins found herself embroiled. Unlikely as it might seem, incredibly valuable items do somehow make it to thrift stores sometimes. But was this Salvador Dalí piece that she’d discovered as significant as these other examples? Well, she had to consult art expert Melanie Smith to find out.
Having given the piece a clean and removed it from its frame, Smith was pretty sure that she was looking at an original Dalí work. Everything from its style to the paper it was impressed upon seemed to point towards that being the case. Of course, the most telling clue was a signature that really did seem like Dalí’s own.
Smith herself spoke to WAVY about the piece, declaring her confidence that the work really had been created by Dalí. “Everything fits,” she said. “He is one of the great artists of the 20th century.” For an art enthusiast like her, one can only imagine how exciting she must have found this situation.
This piece was indeed an original Dalí, one that belonged to a wider collection. It could be traced back to the 1950s, when Dalí had been selected by the government of Italy to create illustrations to accompany a new publication of the Divine Comedy, the 14th-century narrative poem written by Dante. The project, though, didn’t work out as planned.
In hindsight, hiring Dalí to paint scenes for the Divine Comedy was a terrible idea in the first place. The poem, after all, is widely revered as an Italian masterpiece, so the people of Italy were never likely to be pleased when their government arranged for a Spaniard to illustrate it. And Dalí himself was an outspoken opponent of religion, which didn’t exactly suit the content of the poem.
To put it in simple terms, the Divine Comedy follows the experiences of a person who finds himself on an epic religious journey. Led by his guides Virgil and Beatrice, this man journeys through three spiritual realms. These are Hell, Heaven and Purgatory, each of which introduce him to new souls.
The Divine Comedy is revered in Italy, so there was obviously a great deal of resistance to a figure like Dalí being given official permission to paint it. In fact, there were even those in the society that considered it to be a criminal offense. Opposition to the government’s decision quickly took hold.
The scandal even made it to Italy’s parliament, at which point the government decided to back down. They reneged on their deal with Dalí, deciding that it would be best that he not complete the work. The artist, though, had already committed himself to the undertaking. So, he completed it anyway, instead offering the work to a publisher from France.
Over the course of nine years beginning in 1951, Dalí created 100 works based on the Divine Comedy. In them, the artist depicted many of the beasts and individuals that crop up in the settings that Dante lays out in his poem. These are, as we’ve mentioned, Heaven, Purgatory and Hell.
The process of composing these scenes was meticulous. First, Dalí utilized watercolors to create each individual piece. Then, these designs were sculpted into wooden blocks in order to create a print. Each wooden slab was then colored in a single shade, meaning that a huge number of such templates were needed. In total, it’s estimated that around 3,500 blocks were used for the series.
From some people’s perspective, Dalí’s Divine Comedy series is up there with the best of his work. In it, the artist demonstrates his own boundless imagination, yet he also manages to add further depth to an already intensely layered work of art. You can’t help but wonder what Dante himself might have thought of the series.
Upon completing his series, Dalí had created 100 scenes to accompany the Divine Comedy. Of these, 34 pieces were set in Hell, while 33 depicted Dante’s vision of Heaven and Purgatory respectively. It was one of these last pieces, as it happens, that made it to the thrift store in North Carolina.
You might imagine that an artwork from such a revered figure as Dalí would be close to priceless. But in actual fact, this piece wasn’t quite as rare as you’d initially think. That’s because Dalí created numerous copies of each scene, meaning that the piece in North Carolina wasn’t totally unique. In fact, about 150 are thought to exist in total. Having said that, this particular copy was signed, increasing its value.
So, how much was the piece actually worth? Well, an anonymous couple ended up buying the print for $1,200. That might initially seem a little disappointing, but considering that most artworks at the Hotline Pink Thrift Shop usually sell for no more than $50, it’s fair to say that $1,200 isn’t bad going.
But who on earth donated this $1,200 artwork to the thrift store? The truth is, nobody knows. Speaking to WAVY, the executive director of the Outer Banks Hotline organization Michael Lewis explained what happened. He said, “We get things donated in the middle of the night and sometimes people just drop off things and leave, so we have no idea who donated it.”
If that person ever finds out how much his artwork was worth, they’ll surely kick themselves. But hopefully they’ll find solace in the fact that the money went to a good cause; as Lewis pointed out, the proceeds will go towards community initiatives. All in all, then, the painting really will do some good.