MANTEO, N.C. — In the middle of the Elizabethan Gardens, a bronze tribute to the namesake Queen watches over the flowers. However, the rarest find there doesn't bloom in sun or shade.
A 16th-century portrait of Queen Elizabeth, purchased in the 1950s along with other period antiques, has been a mere wall decoration in the gatehouse for nearly 50 years.
“I've walked past that portrait many times,” Elizabethan Gardens Executive Director Horace Whitfield said. “We either become accustomed to things and accept them as routine or we just don't realize what it is we're sitting on top of.”
“I've been here 17 years and she (the Queen) has been watching over me all the time,” Elizabethan Gardens gift shop employee Ruth Lanyon said. “I could have sold it for $100 or $500 many times."
That would have been a bargain price. The unpretentious painting could be worth more than $5 million.
“I'm happy it belongs to the Gardens,” Whitfield said.
Whitfield said he knew the painting had value, but recent revelations help to explain why the rare portrait could blossom into a windfall.
It turns out the queen, who ruled from 1558 to 1603, may have been a bit vain.
“We would speculate that if the queen had seen this portrait, she probably wouldn't have released it. It's one that shows her aging. It's not flattering. Her face is drawn and somewhat gaunt. There are wrinkles,” Whitfield said.
“Well, actually, I thought the postcard was prettier than the picture,” Lanyon said. “It's really that stare that strikes me.”
If you have visited the Elizabethan Gardens over the last 50 or so years and have seen the portrait, consider yourself lucky. It was recently moved to a secure storage area off-site while the Gardens decides what to do with it.