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Missing Trego painting found in Bloomington library, hiding in plain sight

A 19th century William B. T. Trego painting, The Charge of Custer at Winchester, went for $14,490 at a Bloomington Public Library auction.
Rhonda Massie
A 19th century William B. T. Trego painting, "The Charge of Custer at Winchester," went for $14,490 at a Bloomington Public Library auction.

A 150-year-old art mystery has finally been solved at the Bloomington Public Library.

Back in February and March, the library held auctionsfor nearly 40 its art pieces. Due to the library’s ongoing construction and expansion, many wall hangings and paintings needed to be removed.

Many of the pieces being sold were donations that were in secluded locations in the library, giving little opportunity for public viewing, according to library staff.

Some of the stories about how the library obtained these pieces of artwork have become lost over the last 50 years. One piece in particular has an interesting past and was considered to be long-gone by several art enthusiasts.

A 19th century William B. T. Trego painting, "The Charge of Custer at Winchester," seemed to vanish after being purchased by an American diplomat, John C. White, back in 1884.

Surprisingly, the painting had been hanging back in the Illinois section in the Bloomington Public Library.

“We didn’t realize that it was lost,” library marketing manager Rhonda Massie said. “We’ve always known where it is and I’ve been walking past it for the last 15 years.”

The painting boosted Trego’s career overnight, making the military history painting essential to Trego’s list of works.

It was estimated that the painting would sell for $3,000-$5,000. The gavel price was $11,500. Adding the buyers’ fees (26%), the buyer paid $14,490. With discounted seller fees (15%) taken into account, the library nets $9,775 from the sale toward its expansion fund.

The Trego painting made up over half of the earnings from the entire auction, which was a total of $18,346.79.

The full story of how the library ended up with the painting is unclear. Massie said that their records show that it was donated to them by Adlai Ewing.

“We don’t know how the person who gave it to us got it from John C. White and we haven’t been able to pinpoint that,” Massie said. “Adlai Ewing was the uncle of a man named Spencer Ewing, who was on our board for a long time.”

The buyer of the painting wished to remain anonymous.

They first found the painting while searching for auctions related to General Custer, a U.S. Army officer during the Civil War.

“At first I thought it’s probably fake,” the buyer said. “This is something, this is too weird, it can’t be the painting. And I did some checking and I got in touch with Trego’s biographer, Joseph Eckhardt, and I told him and he said, ‘I think you found it.’”

While the buyer is currently enjoying the painting on their wall, they want the art to be appreciated by other Trego fans as well.

“I wouldn’t be against loaning it out to a museum as well, especially if there was a really good Trego exhibit,” the buyer said. “I would love for people to see it. I would like to own it for as long as I can and pass it on to my children, but I think it would be nice to loan it to a prominent museum.”

The buyer emphasized the importance of Trego and his paintings.

“(Trego) really didn’t have use of his hands,” the buyer said. “It was amazing how he painted. He had to stick the brush in a clenched hand, it was inoperable. And he would move his right hand with his left hand, which was also very crippled. He was a force of nature.”

Megan Spoerlein was a reporting intern at WGLT.