Call them 'Finders of the Lost Art'

Philly gals Gwenanne Edwards (left) and Samantha Sheesley made a major international discovery. (TOM GRALISH/Staff Photographer)

THE BARNES FOUNDATION recently discovered two hidden works by the artist Paul Cezanne on the back sides of two Cezanne watercolors being restored at Philadelphia's Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.

Two CCAHA conservators, Samantha Sheesley and Gwenanne Edwards, using such precision tools as a microspatula, were painstakingly peeling the paper backing from the watercolors when Edwards noticed what appeared to be a Cezanne sketch on the reverse side of a painting. She alerted Sheesley, who, incredibly, found one on the painting she herself was restoring.

The previously unknown treasures are now on display at the Barnes in the "Cezanne Uncovered" exhibit, through May 18.

Daily News movie critic Gary Thompson sat down with Sheesley and Edwards to talk about their amazing discovery, the specialized world of art conservation and some scenes from the Nic Cage movie "National Treasure" that really unsettle conservators.

Q You were using a microspatula. Are you aware that SpongeBob also uses one of those?

Sheesley: I was not aware of that. He's a conservator in training, I guess.

Q On the subject of training, how does one become a conservator?

Edwards: I was introduced to it pretty early on. I'm from Rochester. There are a lot of photo preservationists at the George Eastman House, and there is the Image Permanence Institute also in Rochester, and my father worked for Kodak. When I went to college, I studied art conservation.

Sheesley: My mom is an artist and my dad is a mathematician, so there was always this left brain/right brain thing going on. It turned out to be a great way for me and Mom and Dad to have a conversation about math and art and science.

Edwards: I think there's a certain type of person that's drawn to it. You have to have a lot of patience.

Q So there's a lot of time-consuming, painstaking work involved, and not all of it glamorous. Then one day you're doing work for the Barnes, slowly peeling back the corner of a Cezanne watercolor, and . . .

Edwards: I started in a corner that happened to have a dealer's mark on the back of the watercolor. So I wasn't sure what I was uncovering. At first I thought it might be part of the mark.

It wasn't until I got about a third of the way into the backing removal that I realized there was a drawing.

Sheesley: In the case of the object I was working with, the drawing extended to all of the edges of the paper so it was immediately apparent from the first couple of fibers that I'd removed.

Q And did you know right away that you'd uncovered works by Cezanne, that it wasn't some random and anonymous sketching?

Edwards: I think we knew immediately it was a possibility.

Q It's a pretty important discovery, but I'm not hearing about any shrieking and high-fiving.

Sheesley: I think when people hear we discovered drawings, in their minds there's this very dramatic almost instantaneous unveiling and - "Aha!" - you're taking a sheet of paper and ripping it off the back.

It's over a period of many hours, and it's a very slow unearthing. The suspension definitely builds over time.

The drawing I was working with was very beautiful and nicely realized, it was a gorgeous scene, and it's a pleasure to spend time with something like that.

Q So it's not like it is in the movies. Is it even in the movies? Do you know of any good movies about art conservation?

Sheesley: There's Sigourney Weaver in "Ghostbusters" with her optivisors (art conservators' goggles), but that's not really a movie about art.

Edwards: There are movies that make you cringe. Like "National Treasure," when they roll up the Declaration of Independence. That's hard to watch. Or when they pour lemon juice on it to reveal a hidden message.

Q Speaking of movies, I'm betting Dan Brown has read of your discovery, and is working it into his next book. Two beautiful conservators peel the backing off an Old Masters painting, find a map to a valuable relic, and get chased around by homicidal albino monks.

Sheesley: We'd consider selling our story for the right amount.

Q Has anybody put a value on the Cezanne drawings?

Sheesley: Not to our knowledge. And that's not really something we get into. It's kind of considered a conflict of interest.

Conservators are supposed to offer the same level of care for any object they're working with. A Cezanne watercolor, or a photograph of your grandmother.