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GSA Restores and Reinstalls Long-Lost Depression-Era Paintings

By Javier Fernandez

Restored Boyton lunette painting
Rich Agricultural Heritage - Celebrating one of California's largest and important industries, "Fruit Picking” captures an iconic harvest scene in the state's fertile Central Valley.

At some point during the remodel of the historic El Viejo Post Office in Modesto in the 1960s, six Depression-era paintings were removed and subsequently lost to history. The project file was missing documentation of the paintings’ removal or their whereabouts, creating a decades-long mystery. 

Painted in 1936 by American artist Ray Boynton, the missing lunette paintings were part of a set of 13 paintings commissioned by the federal government for the recently built post office. These lunette paintings, so named for their distinctive half-moon shape, celebrated Modesto’s history and depicted richly colored mining and agricultural scenes, both vital industries to California’s Central Valley’s economy.   

When the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) disposed of the post office in 2013, the agency transferred ownership of the building’s artwork to the new owner but retained an interest in their long-term conservation. The new owners of the post office sought to find the missing paintings and placed ads in the local newspaper. Their efforts paid off when they managed to locate two of the missing paintings inside a barn where they had been kept for decades.


Unfortunately, the recovered paintings, “Symbols of Water” and “Fruit Picking”, were in rough condition, exhibiting staining, flaking, paint loss, warping, and significant water damage. GSA exercised its legal rights to conservation, took possession of the paintings, and awarded a contract to professionally restore the historic paintings.

“These paintings represent an important period in American history and are a critical part of our nation’s artistic and cultural heritage,” said Patricia Weber, Regional Fine Arts Officer for GSA Region 9. “GSA is tasked with protecting, preserving, and caring for the thousands of paintings, murals, sculptures and art pieces commissioned by the U.S. government specifically for our public buildings.”

The restoration process was not quick, taking months of slow, delicate, and detailed work to complete. In July 2022, GSA worked with the contractor, the building owner, and local historians to place the restored Boyton lunette paintings back to their rightful place within the former El Viejo Post Office.