Aportrait with a dedication signed by a very young Ava Gardner in Spain has passed from hand to hand for more than seven decades, twisting and turning for years until its origin and even the identity of the subjects were forgotten.
It came to its present owner ten years ago as a gift from a friend, and remained rolled up in a cardboard tube for years until he had it framed to stop it deteriorating. For him its value was personal, because it had come from a colleague, although the date written in pencil, 1950, made it clear how old it was.
But this portrait of a young woman with eight other faces and signatures, was hiding a secret that did not start to be revealed until the pandemic.
One day during lockdown Rafael Pérez Pallarés, a priest with the diocese of Malaga, took the picture off the wall to look more closely at the portraits and messages and discovered, with the help of a friend, that what he had believed was a signature by 'Ana' was actually 'Ava'. It was Ava Gardner who had written "For Blanche, best wishes always."
And that was the start of a full-scale investigation that led the picture's owner to the film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, which was released in 1951 but filmed a year earlier in Tossa de Mar, in Catalonia.
It was the first time the actress had filmed in Spain and she fell in love with the country... and with a long list of admirers. The first was bullfighter Mario Cabré, an affair that led Frank Sinatra, Ava's husband at the time, to catch a flight to Girona to silence the rumours that had reached Hollywood.
Indeed, a drawing of the bullfighter with his own dedication appears just below that of the American diva. Sinatra would almost certainly have felt that was too close.
When Pérez Pallarés began to decipher the names of the others who had signed their portraits, he found that one was another star of the time, James Mason, and the others were Nigel Patrick, Sheila Sim, Harold Warrender and Patricia Raine, as well as the faces (but no accompanying message) of Marius Goring and Pamela Mason, wife of the co-star of the film.
"I knew that there must have been a story behind all those names but I didn't realise what this was until I mentioned it to a film buff who had come to see me because he was getting married. When he saw the portraits he explained that it was the cast of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman," said Pérez Pallarés.
The discovery of Ava Gardner's connection has given the piece a special value for him and encouraged him to continue his research into the film, which was one of the first Hollywood movies filmed in Spain in the 1950s.
The director of photography, Jack Cardiff, used this Spanish experience to become the director of Scent of Mystery (1960), another film shot in Malaga which made history for being the first to use the Smell-O-Vision system to release odours at certain times while it was being screened. And for being a complete flop. But that's another story.
Having discovered all this, what was still unknown was the identity of Blanche, to whom all the film's actors in the sketch had written a dedication in pencil. They appeared fond of her and presumably she collaborated or worked directly with them, although the present owner of this collector's item has an alternative hypothesis.
"At the bottom of the page it says 'A memory of S'Agaró', and that is an estate on the Costa Brava whose first building was an iconic house built in the 1920s called Senya Blanca," said Pérez Pallarés, who thinks the dedications could be referring to this residence, which is now protected and where the actors could have stayed or filmed.
Also unconfirmed is the person who drew the portraits and what happened to the piece during the years before it came to Malaga. The artist is likely to have been sculptor Paco Torres Mansó, who was signed by the production company to make drawings while the scenes were being filmed, and it is indeed signed 'Paco'.
With regard to the origins, Pérez Pallarés says it was given to him by a priest, who in turn had received it from a former Guardia Civil officer from Zaragoza who had retired to Alhaurín de la Torre. And there the trail ends.
"It could be the result of a robbery and there's someone looking for it, but who knows where these drawings came from," he said. However, putting his Christian vocation and profession first, he says he has no particular attachment to this unique piece.
"If someone has more interest in it than I do, and wants to give it a use so more people can enjoy it, they can have it," he said, with a smile.