There’s little Barbara Nelson loves more than combing through thrift shops for a good find and tracing family histories.
It’s not often that the amateur genealogist and thrift shopper from Central Islip can combine her two hobbies, but a unique opportunity arose in December, leading her to reunite a California man with a long-lost portrait of his mother.
Nelson said she was flipping through a stack of dusty artwork in a Patchogue thrift shop in early December when she saw a sketch painted over with watercolors. The piece — which was half price — showed a young girl in a ballet outfit, slouched on a couch with scribbled handwriting that read “Stephanie” and “1942.”
“It was literally at the bottom of the pile,” Nelson, 50, said. “It just looked like an original.”
Nelson said she was so curious about who Stephanie was, she put her genealogy skills to work.
Two hours of Googling later, Nelson had her answers: Stephanie was the daughter of the painting’s artist, George Mann Shellhase. Shellhase was known in New York for his art and illustration work, which ran in magazines and newspapers in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
Nelson did her best to verify it was one of his pieces by comparing the style and signature to paintings of his on eBay.
Shellhase died in 1988 at age 93, and Stephanie Moore, his daughter, died in 1999. Using genealogy websites and Facebook, Nelson tracked down Stephanie’s son, Sam Moore, a ferryboat captain in San Rafael, California, and other family members.
Moore, who initially hesitated to talk with a stranger about his grandfather’s artwork, agreed to take the painting once he learned it was a portrait of his mother.
“It’s a really nice work of my mother, and we don’t have a lot of that,” said Moore, 50.
Moore said he and his siblings didn’t often see their grandfather, who lived in Florida while they grew up in California. But his family members have dozens of Shellhase paintings in their homes.
Moore doesn’t know how his grandfather’s work ended up in Suffolk County, but said Shellhase was a prolific and quick artist, who often drew scenes while watching sports games. He said he’s certain the painting is his grandfather’s work.
Moore received the painting in late December and is having it restored after it was damaged during shipping. He’s grateful to Nelson for contacting him, he said.
“She certainly could have gone without doing it,” he said. “I’m glad she did.”
Nelson considers it her duty to help others embrace their family history. Her love for genealogy is one reason she never considered selling the painting.
“I have a respect for things like that,” she said. “It was the artist’s daughter, it belongs to them.”