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Thomas Hart Benton's preliminary sketches penciled for auction

Friday, December 3, 2010 | 2:45 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — Preliminary sketches drawn by renowned Kansas City artist Thomas Hart Benton for a mural that hangs in the Smithsonian are going up for auction this weekend.

The dozen pencil sketches are outlines for Benton's mural "Achelous and Hercules," which used images from Greek mythology to depict Kansas City-area history. Benton eventually completed a 22-by-5¼-foot mural, which was displayed at Harzfeld's women's store in downtown Kansas City from 1947 until 1984.

The sketches, which include drawings of a bull, human figures and early outlines of the entire mural, are to be sold Saturday at Dirk Soulis Auctions in Lone Jack. Initial asking prices range from $1,000 to $7,500, The Kansas City Star reported.

"This is certainly a significant new discovery to find a whole group like this," said Henry Adams, a former curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and a Benton expert.

The sketches were found among the estate of Patricia George, an award-winning ad designer and fashion illustrator at Harzfeld's, who died last December at age 84.

In the mural, Achelous, the Greek god of rivers, is depicted as an angry bull tearing through the earth with his horns. Hercules ripped off a horn while battling the beast, and the horn became nature's cornucopia, or horn of plenty.

"It was very much done for Kansas City, and a lot of people appreciated this work in the store," said Joe Boeckholt, co-author of "Harzfeld's, A Brief History."

Lester Siegel Jr., whose father, Lester Sr., once owned Harzfeld's, told the Star that his father commissioned the mural in 1946 for $12,500, and that Benton was a family friend.

Dirk Soulis, the auctioneer, said he was told was that George found the sketches lying on the floor at the Harzfeld's office.

"She had gone to the (Kansas City) Art Institute and recognized their importance and felt they were worth picking up," he said.

When the store closed, the last owner of Harzfeld's, Allied Stores of New York, was approached by several local potential buyers including the then-Nelson Gallery, the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the Clay County Fine Arts Commission.

But when the estimated price of the mural reached around $750,000, the company decided to transfer it to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington through a combination sale and donation, the Star reported. It now hangs on the second floor of the north wing.

Boeckholt would like to see the sketches remain in Kansas City.

"It would be great if they were available to the public and remained together," he said. "It would be unfortunate if they went into a private collection or were no longer in the United States, because it's part of our history."


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