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Latin Masterpiece a Real Find for New York Writer

One person's trash is sometimes another person's treasure, especially when art is involved. Paige Kollock reports on one stolen painting's odyssey, as it went from the sidewalk to the auction block.

One million forty three dollars. That is the amount this Latin American oil painting -- "Three People" ("Tres Personajes") -- sold for at a recent auction in New York City. But for a while, writer Elizabeth Gibson had it for nothing.

She describes how she came about possessing the piece. "I was on my way to get my coffee, as usual, and there was the garbage, but this time there was a large colorful painting."

Gibson found the painting on a Manhattan sidewalk in 2003 and she felt compelled to pick it up. She described her thoughts. "I wouldn't say it was beautiful. It was just so powerful. It had like an other-worldly power. It was just like a mystery, what was it doing in the trash?"

While Gibson hung the mysterious find on a wall at home, the art world mourned the loss of Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo's masterpiece. It went missing in 1987. Art appraiser August Uribe provides historical perspective, "This is one of Rufino Tamayo's most important late, mature works, painted in 1970, when the artist had reached the culmination of his search for his interpretation of the abstraction of the human figure, as well as building up the color and surface texture of his paintings."

Shortly after finding the painting, Gibson embarked on a four-year quest to investigate it, calling friends in the art world, studying the artist at the library and even traveling four hours to watch a TV show that featured lost and stolen art. "Never did I take it and say, 'Oh, maybe it's valuable.' That wasn't it. But it was just like this radiating energy in my apartment saying, 'You're just going to leave me here? I don't belong here. Find out about me'," she said.

Gibson says she made an appointment to visit Uribe, using a fake name. He then visited her home and confirmed the painting's authenticity.

Uribe adds, "There's just this wonderful saturation of texture and colors pretty unique to Tamayo's paining. It would be extraordinarily difficult to fake that."

Sotheby's tracked down the painting's rightful owner, who decided to sell it. Though Gibson is sad to part with the painting, she says finding it turned into a spiritual journey. "It was just like a mystery, what was it doing in the trash?"

Gibson received a $15,000 finder's fee and worldwide media attention. While her cash reward pales in comparison to the price of the painting, she says she is happy just to have rescued the piece from its demise.