Illinois portrait, Imperial provenance: How a mysterious Russian painting surfaced in the Midwest

Bryan Laughlin, curatorial specialist at Selkirk Auctioneers and Appraisers, explains how an ancestral portrait owned by a Russian count ended up in Fairfield, Illinois.

A prince, a painting, a paramour. The small-town church of starlet progeny. Whites vs. Reds, Axis vs. Allied, inheritance vs. ambition.

Art that seemingly comes out of nowhere.

Or not. Meet Nicholas Wladimiroch Orloff (1895–1961), Russian count with lineage tracing back to 1746. Thrust from a lofty military position in 1917 due to revolutionary turmoil, he would later make his way to the United States, bringing a cache of treasures with him. So how did this royal drifter deal with imprisonment by the Bolsheviks, a sullied title, and any number of imperial imbroglios?

“Like any good man, he escaped!” says Bryan Laughlin, curatorial specialist at Selkirk Auctioneers and Appraisers in St. Louis. For several months, Laughlin has meticulously tracked the life and lifework of the Count, counting down the days to May 20 when one of the prince’s most prized possessions will go up for auction.

The bequest in question is a stately oil on canvas painted in 1846 by the Italian artist Cosroe Dusi, depicting three figures in a lavish sitting room: Alexey Fyodorovich Orlov (1787–1861), his wife Olga de Gerebtsoff, and their son Nikolay Alexeyevich Orlov (1827–1885). As for how the piece turned up in the heart of the heart of the country, that’s where the story gets even better.

After stints as a successful author, journalist, and foreign correspondent across Europe in the years leading to World War II, the count crossed the ocean for New York, upon which he embarked on a renegade romance with American film actress Mary Regina Shuck (known onscreen as Marina Marshall), whom he eventually married. To her he gifted the Orloff portrait, which made its way—with Shuck—to Fairfield, Illinois, for a quiet life in a quiet town after Orloff died in 1961. More than a half century later, her granddaughter’s Fairfield church contacted Selkirk auction upon the passing of the final heir. The painting—and its colorful background—emerged from obscurity.

While the story has all the trimmings of a period drama (hopefully starring Helen Mirren), it is a signature Bryan Laughlin production. As a seasoned antiques and restoration expert, Laughlin has long gravitated toward objects with a story as distinctive as their patina. In 2014, he was a buyer of the estate of Virginia Terpening, the reclusive regionalist from Lewistown, Missouri, whose artwork was suddenly unearthed years after her death. Laughlin’s account of his time investigating the Orloff painting is punctuated with invisible exclamation points lingering in the air as he plays raconteur.

“It’s literally art coming to life,” he stresses, after asking me to pardon the cliché. “The possible St. Louis connection to this portrait initially seemed almost magical, but farther into the investigation, started seeming more believable. At the halfway point, it became even more real. Three quarters through, it became undeniable that this painting was factually provenance of the prince.”

And why does the story matter? Because, in short, it is a wonder that Orloff’s painting has survived at all (and in such remarkable condition, after a sojourn across the Atlantic, then the eastern half of the US, and no museum or gallery affiliation). “Often, fantastic pieces of art just come out of the woodwork, no matter who is privileged, humbled, or honored enough to be working on it,” he says. “I don’t want to take a lot of the credit because I feel the art presents itself when it is ready. Inevitably the piece tells the specialist what it is.”

The sign of a true curator isn’t simply an eye for an object highly valued; it is a singular ardor for that object’s life, the story that births it to be valued at all. In a week where TIME magazine’s cover illustration depicts the Kremlin eclipsing the White House, it’s almost quaint to think of a Russia known best for unrivaled artistic decadence and dramatic noble subplots. Perhaps Orloff’s painting serves as a reminder then: of what can hide for years in the middle of a place so often forgotten, of the grand history we all in some way share, but all too easily overlook.

Disclosure: the author is a former colleague of Laughlin's (the two worked together at The Hinge Gallery, including the curation of the Virginia Terpening exhibit).

The Orloff family portrait and corroborative items are part of Lot 255, available for auction Saturday, May 20 at 10 a.m. at 4739 McPherson in the Central West End, and online through Selkirk's website. For more information, contact Bryan Laughlin at (314) 696-9041, or [email protected].