By MAGGIE MENDERSKI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
LEWISTOWN, Mo. -- Jason Geisendorfer nearly set his fortune on fire.
Geisendorfer bought a dilapidated trailer in May with plans to save the scrap metal and burn the leftovers. He'd seen stacks of paintings through the windows, but he never expected to find an acclaimed artist's legacy.
Buried beneath a hoarder's paradise of newspapers, old clothes, garbage and raccoon feces were more than 100 paintings piled on top of a bed and piles of others stacked in boxes. Geisendorfer opened a yellowing sketchbook and revealed dozens of nude drawings dating back to the late 1930s. Behind the trailer, a broken-down and vandalized bus housed another 200 paintings.
"My first thought was they were (a) grandma's paintings, and I was just going to burn them," Geisendorfer said.
Virginia Shoup Terpening left her life's work in her Lewistown trailer when she died in 2007. Until this spring, her lot had been an eyesore to the neighborhood and a time capsule for her life.
Born in 1917, Terpening studied art under Thomas Hart Benton and attended Washington University in St. Louis. Her father, Floyd Shoup, served as Lewistown's Missouri state representative, and her mother, Bertha Shoup, was a local historian. Throughout her life, Terpening's work appeared in many notable places like the Madison Gallery in New York, the Contemporary Arts Gallery in Boston, and the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation Museum in Nottingham, England. She painted a Mississippi riverboat for former President Jimmy Carter, and she received an invitation to Queen Elizabeth II's coronation.
"It's her whole life's story," Geisendorfer said. "It's every news article about her, anything that she ever won, even every rejection. She saved everything."
Five months later after buying the trailer from Terpening's daughter, Geisendorfer has cleaned up the mess and put the 700-piece collection up for auction with United Country, an auction and real estate company in Quincy, Ill.
While Terpening completed some pieces on commission, she kept most everything she ever painted. Her unwillingness to part with her work has prevented her being a part of modern memory, and it left the art community without a reference point to price her art.
Terpening's journals reveal that she collected her own work with the intention of opening a gallery. In her death, her wish may come true.
Jason Wallingford, broker and owner of United Country, intends to auction off the entire collection in St. Louis on Oct. 21.
"If you ‘google' Virginia Terpening, you'll find nothing on her," Wallingford said. "You'll barely even find an obituary for her."
Fortunately, Geisendorfer recognized Terpening's talent, even if he hadn't known her history. As he worked through the trailer, he handled her canvas oil paintings, watercolors and sketches with care. He visited several galleries in Hannibal hoping to learn more about Terpening, but her memory seemed to escape professional memory just as it had vanished from her hometown.
"I talked with some folks who were born and raised in Lewis County, but they had no idea that there was a lady named Terpening who did painting," Wallingford said.
Debbie Scoggins-Myers, a lecturer in art at Culver-Stockton College, had met Terpening years before. When rumors about the collection circulated through Lewis County, Scoggins-Myers contacted Geisendorfer. She had taught him art at Highland High School nearly two decades before, and Scoggins-Myers wanted to see his find for herself.
"Nine hundred and ninety-nine people out of 100 would have just seen it as trash and burned it," Scoggins-Myers said. "He took the time to clean it up, go through it and organize it."
Together, they sat in Geisendorfer's garage and went through the collection piece by piece. Geisendorfer and his wife already had spent weeks going through the journals, diaries and clippings. He had more access to Terpening's life story than any search engine, encyclopedia or history book could offer.
Still, Scoggins-Myers' interest and approval helped him realize the full extent of his find.
Geisendorfer and his two daughters -- Sarah, 16, and Hannah, 14 -- bought Terpening's trailer hoping to tidy a neighborhood lot while recouping their labor and the cost of the property in scrap metal. The family had never dabbled in the scrap metal business before. Geisendorfer had been on disability for nearly two years, and the father-daughter team simply hoped to make a little extra cash.
The girls cleaned up the lot in two afternoons, and Geisendorfer handled the truckloads of trash and treasure inside the trailer. When he sold the lot this summer, Geisendorfer received five times more money than what he paid for the lot.
Wallingford said the response to the collection has been overwhelming, and that some of the paintings individually could sell for more than $25,000. Geisendorfer isn't sure what the art collection will sell for, but he's certain he can't lose.
"I drove by it thinking that someone needed to clean the place up," Geisendorfer said. "I thought maybe the scrap metal could pay for the place. I hit the lottery."