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Originally published Tuesday, August 3, 2010 at 2:49 PM

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Treasures: Portrait of a pierhead

Luca Papaluca was a well-known "pierhead" painter in Naples, Italy

Scripps Howard News Service

Dear Helaine and Joe: I have this painting that is signed "Papaluca," and it depicts the New York Harbor. I am told that it is unusual for this artist to paint in oil, as his usual medium is watercolor. Is this correct? Can you tell me the value of the painting? — J.H., e-mail

Dear J.H.: What's in a name? Obviously, a great deal when it comes to artists and their work, but the last name "Papaluca" is not one that springs to mind when the topic of "collectible art" comes up in casual conversation.

In addition, a problem arises because there were two artists with this last name who painted seascapes — Luca the father (1890-1934) and Louis the son. Both worked in a similar style and both signed their paintings "L. Papaluca,"which has caused endless confusion among auction houses trying to sell their wares and collectors who admire their work.

Luca Papaluca was a well-known "pierhead" painter in Naples, Italy. This term is probably unfamiliar to most, but it refers to an artist — usually not formally trained — who painted souvenir portraits of ships for the seamen and passengers who sailed on them. (Naples was a hotbed for this type of painting, as were other ports around the world.) Pierhead artists often had to work fast to complete the painting before the ship departed.

Because pierheads had to satisfy the expectations of their clientele, ships were almost always painted from a broadside view with all the sails set and pennants flying. These portraits were often exact and technically accurate; in fact, when one of these ship paintings is compared to a photograph of the same vessel, it is amazing how similar the two images often turn out to be.

As J.H. notes, Luca Papaluca generally painted in watercolor and gouache (a type of watercolor with more pigment suspended in the water), and only occasionally worked in oil, which probably took too long to dry for his purposes. Louis Papaluca, however, moved to the United States and worked far more frequently in oil than his more famous father.

Auction houses often confuse the two painters, and in some instances, they may do this intentionally because the father's work is more sought after and more valuable than the son's. Some auction houses will note that the artist is "Papaluca Jr." when they know, but it is often difficult to be absolutely certain which Papaluca did the work at hand.

Regarding today's item, it is unclear which Papaluca's signature adorns the painting. We feel strongly, however, that the artist for this piece is the younger Papaluca, because it is oil on canvas and is a New York scene rather than a pierhead ship's portrait — the trademark of the elder Papaluca.

This piece is a beautiful representation of the New York Harbor replete with the Statue of Liberty. At auction, the painting should bring around $600 and be worth only a little more for insurance purposes.

Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson are the authors of "Price It Yourself"(HarperResource, $19.95). Contact them at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928. E-mail them at treasures@knology.net.

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