The portrait’s power was unquestionable: In shades of rose, beige and taupe, it captured a young Joan Didion, angst furrowing her brow.
As Didion fans made the pilgrimage to Hudson, N.Y., where an auction house displayed her belongings for sale in November, many went straight to the painting, which hung behind Didion’s white slipcovered sofas, among her Celine sunglasses, notebooks and family photos.
“It catches your attention the moment you walk into the exhibition,” said Lisa Thomas, the director of fine arts at Stair Galleries, the auction house that handled the sale. The portrait had gripped her, too, Thomas said, when she saw it.
“My first question,” she said, “was, ‘Who painted that?’”
Didion and her husband, John Dunne, had been friends with many artists. Among the pieces offered for auction were works by Annie Leibovitz, Richard Diebenkorn and Cy Twombly. But this painting’s provenance was a mystery.
Beyond a signature and a date — L. Johnson, 1977 — very little was known about who painted it, why, or how it reached Didion. Further research by the auction house proved futile. The original description in the catalog, Thomas said, drew from an apocryphal story passed down in Didion’s family that offered more questions than answers: “A prison inmate painted this portrait from the photograph on the back of the book jacket of ‘A Book of Common Prayer.’ It was gifted to Didion, but there is no record of the details.”
The author, who died in December 2021, had clearly valued it. The 45-inch-by-45-inch oil-on-canvas portrait had hung prominently in Didion’s New York dining room. She was photographed in front of it during interviews over the years. But without any provenance beyond Didion’s possession, it was listed as Lot 4 of 224, and valued at between $3,000 and $5,000 — one of many items her estate would sell to raise money for Parkinson’s patient care and research at Columbia University, and for a scholarship for women in literature at Sacramento City College.
Early bidding proved Thomas’s instinct correct: There was something captivating about the painting with the nebulous back story. By Nov. 16, the morning of the auction, it had attracted early online bids up to $10,000. Minutes into the live auction, a bidding war broke out, with offers escalating to $40,000, then $60,000.
“We’re at $110,000, $110,000,” the auctioneer Colin Stair said, as the winning bid came in. “$110,000 once, twice,” he said. “Sold for $110,000.”
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