LeBARON: Hidden gem among Modini Ranch finds

The Modini Ranch stories just keep coming. And the Modini gifts just keep on giving.

The 1,700 acres in the mountains of northeastern Sonoma County became a nature preserve earlier this year when the estate of Shirley and Jim Modini, who had lived and loved the ranch for the 60 years of their marriage, was settled. But that wasn't the first story. Nor will it be the last.

The first was the Modinis' decision to sell the development rights on the ranch that had been in Jim's family for 150 years to the Open Space District, keeping the land "forever wild." Then came the childless couple's determination to find the right guardian to inherit the land and everything on it. The gift was given to Audubon Canyon Ranch.

Now we have another story. This one came out of the basement at the ranch house. But it could have come from an episode of "Antiques Roadshow."

A small oil painting of a big-horned sheep standing on a mountain top will be auctioned next week at Bonhams in New York City. It is expected to bring somewhere from $30,000 to $50,000. Maybe more. With the Modini "mojo" at work, who knows where it will end?

The painting is the work of Albert Bierstadt, the Hudson River School artist, whose glorious landscapes captured the beauty of California and the West in the years following the Gold Rush.

Prized by collectors, Bierstadt is best known for his large canvases of Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada. But he also did a few portrait-like paintings of individual animals, including Rocky Mountain sheep, which would describe the ram on the 14" X 20" canvas that stood guard in the Modini basement for who knows how many years.

That's right — the basement! The painting didn't exactly occupy a place of honor in the household. It was down there hanging on the wall behind the freezer — out of sight, out of mind.

Marsha Simmonsia, the Modinis' last caregiver, is the only one who even remembers seeing it. "I'd look at it once in a while," she says, "but it was hard to make out. It was pretty dark down there."

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