It’s a Small World….

Olga Vállay Szokolay

Some time in 1957, when Hungarian refugees settled all over the world, and shortly after our arrival in the United States, I received a letter from Paris, from a friend of a friend. She wrote about their art collection that her husband had purchased at Montmartre flea markets, which included a certain painting by Modigliani.  She wanted to send it to me to sell.  Although I promptly wrote back, “Don’t send any artwork!”, within a few days I received a package from Paris, wrapped in brown paper over a copy of Le Monde, tied with twine.  It was the ominous unsigned painting, the alleged Modigliani, representing an elongated woman.  Our artist friends, including the famous woodcutter Domján József, called it a fake for various reasons.  Thus, the painting was stashed away in my closet.

In late 1958, a very good friend of ours, Oláh Dezső arrived from Europe and stayed with us for a while.  He used to dabble in art dealing in Budapest and, seeing the questionable painting, his curiosity awakened.  In face of the bad preview and my own instinct, Dezső analyzed the brushwork and other features of the picture.  He said we might have something seriously valuable on our hands and we owed it to ourselves and to the owner to explore. 

He talked me into driving to New York City with the painting.  From the phonebook we learned that virtually all art dealers were concentrated in a small area of the City.  We came upon a listing advertised as “Specialist in Modern French Paintings and African Sculpture”.  That’s our man!

We found the dealer, a certain Mr. Segy, in his third-floor atelier, which had a shop behind it, giving us the impression that the “African” sculpture had been made there.  To protect ourselves from suspicion of theft of a world treasure, we told Mr. Segy that Dezső, in possession of a current Austrian passport, had just rescued the painting which had long been in his Hungarian family’s collection.  

Whereas Mr. Segy uttered a welcoming “Oh, magyarok, magyarok?…” in the friendliest manner, he gave us one more not too promising expert opinion, but referred us to a certain top authority at the most noted auction house for the final verdict.  That, too, was negative.

However, we asked Mr. Segy about himself. He told us came to the U.S. in the 1920’s. His original name was Szécsi but, encountering its pronunciation as “Sexy”, he changed it to cater the American public.

We said our good-byes.  He bade us farewell, asking to “Come again and bring something…Something more kosher…”

Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching.  She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.