Obscure art find coup for local federal court

Browsing eBay.com one day, a Chattanoogan came across a painting for sale that looked strikingly similar to the large mural gracing the historic federal courtroom on Georgia Avenue.

Local federal judges and others soon found out it actually was the original "study," or smaller version, of the 30-foot mural -- "Allegory of Chattanooga" -- painted by the original artist.

That artist, Joseph Hilton Leech, had been a beneficiary of the 1930s-era Works Progress Administration, designed to propel artists and other workers into public service. Historians said he used the painting to convince the federal government in Washington to grant him the contract to paint the Chattanooga mural.

The mural has loomed over countless significant court cases on the third floor of the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building ever since, including the famous jury tampering trial of Jimmy Hoffa in 1964.

The obscure Internet find fascinated Don Ferguson, executive director of the U.S. District Court Historical Society in Knoxville, who quickly realized the painting's significance and made arrangements to buy it from the seller in Sarasota, Fla, for $2,200.

"It all worked out, but it was a very odd sequence of events," Mr. Ferguson said.

At a reception in Chattanooga Tuesday to unveil the painting, Hunter Museum of American Art Chief Curator Ellen Simak said comparing it with the final mural reveals its most important legacy.

"It's very interesting to me to have this study alongside the mural because you can see the changes that took place," Ms. Simak said. "It deepens our appreciation for the mural."

For instance, Mr. Leech's painting contains a missionary carrying a cross and a black convict in prison garb. Both images are absent from the final mural, leading historians to believe the government made Mr. Leech remove them before granting him the contract.

"I guess there was political correctness even in the 1930s," U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice observed.

IN THE ARTIST'S WORDS"Using Chattanooga's famous Lookout Mountain as my background, I tried to weave together in front of it a frieze of figures, singly and in groups, each a symbol of the life and of that part of our country." -- Joseph Hilton Leech describing his mural "Allegory of Chattanooga," which hangs in the local federal courts building.

But Ms. Simak noted images specific to Tennessee's history were added to the final mural.

"(The Tennessee Valley Authority) takes a much more prominent place" in the final version, Ms. Simak said.

The East Tennessee Historical Society in Knoxville since has bestowed upon the Eastern Tennessee federal court district a prestigious award for its work in acquiring the painting, but the person who found it on eBay.com remains a mystery.

That person casually popped into Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Neil Thomas' office late last year to tell him about the discovery, but Judge Thomas said he can't remember who it was.

"(The person) asked me if I thought the federal court would be interested in it, and I said, 'I sure hope they'll be,'" Judge Thomas said.

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