Museum Discovers 16th Century Painting Worth Millions Stashed in Closet

Otto van Veen is believed to have created “Apollo and Venus" between 1595 and 1600.

An Iowa public art museum and theater made an incredible discovery when its executive director found a 16th century painting likely worth millions in a seldom-used storeroom.

Robert Warren, executive director of Hoyt Sherman Place, was looking for civil war flags ahead of the organization’s celebration of Presidents Day Weekend in 2016 when he first came upon the painting in a closet on the balcony level of the Des Moines building.

"It was leaning up against the wall [next to] a table when it was first pulled out," Warren told "I didn’t at first realize the value, but it looked interesting."

Warren set out to learn more about the painting.

“On the backside of it, there’s a label,” Warren said. “I thought it was an auction sticker, but it was the catalog record of when it hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art [in New York].”

Warren tapped Barry Bauman, a restoration expert based in Chicago, to help bring the painting back to its original glory.

"The painting was coated with layers of discolored varnish and former restoration work that flattened the three-dimensional quality of the scene and falsified the artist’s intended palette," the museum said in a statement. "Areas of former loss were present along splits in the wood and throughout scattered areas especially pronounced in the left third of the painting. The surface was heavily overpainted after a succession of former restoration attempts."

Bauman got to work, restoring the piece for the cost of materials and shipping alone.

"We wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise," Warren said. "He would send me weekly updates and it just got more spectacular."

The painting was ultimately determined to be the work of Otto van Veen, a Flemish artist known for running a large studio and for training Peter Paul Rubens, who is considered the most influential artist of Flemish Baroque tradition. 

The piece, "Apollo and Venus," is a wood panel painting believed to have been created between 1595 and 1600. It was one of five works of art gifted to the Des Moines Women’s Club at Hoyt Sherman by the prominent Collins family in the 1920s.

The piece had been on display for the world to see as recently as the 1880s, when it was displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but it is believed to have remained in a closet at Hoyt Sherman Place until that fateful day in 2016.

“As the information started coming forward, it was really exciting to see,” Warren said.

Other works by van Veen are displayed across the world, including at the Louvre in Paris, France.

His paintings have historically sold for between $4 million and $17 million, and Warren believes “Apollo and Venus” would be no exception.

Hoyt Sherman Place is having the painting appraised, but plans to keep it at the museum. 

"The fact that we have a painting by Peter Paul Rubens’ instructor is getting huge, huge play," Warren said. "We’ve had so many people wanting to come in and see it right away."

The museum unveiled the painting to its donors and board members on March 21, and will permanent install the painting for all to see in July. An enhanced security system will be in place by the time it is permanently installed.

Serious art enthusiasts and locals alike have shown interest in the painting, which has been encouraging to see, Warren said.

“At the time it was painted, painters were considered craftsmen... poets and musicians were considered to be the high artists," Warren explained. "All the symbolism is there... [that] painting is as important as the spoken word and the written word."

The painting’s scene depicts the figures of Apollo and Venus accompanied by her son, Cupid. 

Venus, the Roman goddess of love, beauty and fertility, is portrayed as an artist painting a landscape that includes a small image of Pegasus on the horizon.

“That the goddess is painting, is center stage of the piece... it’s very, very telling," Warren said.