Fate, art merge at Charleston gallery

Leo Osborne rests with his arms on “The Mergansers,” a piece he created in the mid-1980s while working in Maine.

What would you think when a strange, bearded man is suddenly holding an $18,000 piece of sculpture by a major artist over his head?

Is he crazy? Going to smash it? And why is he crying?

That was the dilemma that faced Kirsten Ingram during the November art walk. She had no idea what was going on as she rushed across her gallery, Ingram Fine Arts, to the man, not quite sure what to do. She didn’t want anything to happen to the beautiful piece of burl wood with two Merganser ducks emerging from its surface, and she wanted the man to put it down gently.

Kirsten and her husband Larry Ingram owned the gallery at 111 Church St., and they love the work of Leo Osborne, a sculptor in wood, so they were excited about finding a piece of his work on eBay.

They bid on the piece being sold by someone in London, and won it.

Kirsten Ingram said it arrived just in time for the art walk, so they brought it into the gallery for display. Ingram was visiting folks in the gallery next door when she saw movement in her gallery.

A woman and a man were in the gallery and the man was holding the sculpture in the air and crying.

In the mid-’80s, Osborne was working in Maine, and was inspired to carve two Merganser ducks after seeing them playing in the springtime ritual of a mating dance on water. A 4-foot-long piece of redwood lace burl had been sent to him from California. It became “The Mergansers,” a favorite piece of his.

Years later, a request was made for the piece to travel to Great Britain for the 1996 International Wildlife Art Auction at Christie’s South Kensington.

Osborne said that he valued the piece at $5,000, and off it went to the U.K.

Unfortunately, the piece didn’t sell. He was asked by his friend, British painter of wildlife Alan Hunt, if he would like him to take it to the gallery that represented him, The Halcyon Gallery.

Osborne said yes, happy to introduce himself to a British audience, and eliminating the need to ship the piece back.

Osborne said there was no email back then and it was only through word on the phone that this all occurred. There was no paper trail, and no signatures. Somehow the sculpture fell into a black hole. No one knew where it went. It was a mystery.

While Osborne tried to track it down, he eventually lost hope of ever recovering the piece, but he kept the catalogue and the paperwork from Christie’s showing that it was in the auction.

Then in 2010, Osborne got an email from a man who had purchased the work from a small auction house in London. It was only after the man took it home that he saw the signature and looked up Osborne on the Internet.

Osborne said he couldn’t believe that the sculpture had resurfaced and the man never told Osborne how little he paid for it. Osborne sent him a letter of authenticity and said the piece should be insured for $20,000.

While Osborne was glad the sculpture had resurfaced, he knew he would never be paid for it since its fate was unclear for 15 years.

He wrote on his blog “These original sculptures are sneaky little things, like Tom Robbins writing about inanimate objects taking on a life of their own, I believe that sometimes happens with my original works when they go away and especially in this case where the piece was sent abroad and just wanted to have some fun for awhile!”

So he was not prepared for what came next.

Osborne is represented by the Martin Gallery, and he and his wife Jane passed the Ingrams’ gallery.

She said ‘Oh my God Leo, isn’t that your Mergansers on that table?’ ”

By the time Ingram saw Osborne, he was weeping and hugging the art saying, “We can’t believe we found this!”

Ingram looked at this man who seemed a little unhinged. He thought she understood what was happening. She wanted to rescue the work.

She asked casually, “Oh, are you Leo Osborne fans?” and he said, “I AM Leo Osborne!” It was an art moment.

A day later, and Osborne might never have known what had happened to the sculpture — again.