Monday, August 26, 2013

DeGrazia’s Treasure

Buried treasure, lost gold mines and Spanish gold have all played their role in the history of the Superstition Wilderness. The history and legend of these rugged and beautiful mountains continues to captivate the imagination of those who enjoy them.

Contemporary tales of lost treasure in the Superstition Wilderness do not haunt the minds of treasure hunters as much as old stories of lost gold in the region. Many of these tales are far different than the ordinary tales of lost gold. One of these treasures is a cache of hidden paintings and sketches done by Arizona’s famous artist Ettore "Ted" DeGrazia. This is the story of one man’s struggle with his inner self and his environment. It is about a man in search of self-identity, and he had spent decades trying to find his niche in life.

The celebrated and famed artist Ettore "Ted" DeGrazia was born in Morenci, Arizona Territory on June 14, 1909. He was the son of an Italian miner and a Tarahumara Indian. As a child Ted found painting with different colors an interesting challenge. He loved to collect colored rocks from around the hills near Morenci. This interest in color later in life helped him to create some of his famous paintings.

DeGrazia, like most artists, had a difficult time finding his place in the real world. He studied under Mexico’s greatest artists, men such as Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. DeGrazia finally built a gallery in Tucson at the corner of Campbell and Prince Roads. He called it the Gallery in the Sun.

In the desert north of Tucson in the 1940’s, DeGrazia adopted a new form for his work using vibrant colors. The Arizona Highways were the first to discover Ted DeGrazia’s vibrant use of colors. The legend and fame of DeGrazia’s work was spread worldwide when his "Los Ninos" was used on an UNESCO stamp. The rest of DeGrazia’s success is history.

Ted DeGrazia claimed he became interested in the Superstition Wilderness Area when he first worked for some unsavory characters out of Superior, Arizona in the late 1920’s. He said when he was attending the University of Arizona he worked a summer helping some bootleggers in the Superstition Mountains near a place called Whiskey Springs. This early introduction to the myriad of canyons and towering spires overwhelmed his imagination. He returned to the Superstition Mountains often during the remainder his life. He painted the "Dutchman" series, wrote a book about Superstition Mountain, guided people through the mountains and told stories about the mountains.

DeGrazia become entangled in a legal battle in the early 1970’s with the United States Internal Revenue Service over Inheritance Tax. He organized a special pack trip with Billy Clark Crader around May 12, 1976. The purpose of the trip was to haul several of his paintings and sketches into the Superstition Wilderness and burn them in protest of the Inheritance Tax. Crader packed DeGrazia, some news media personnel and several friends to Angel Springs Basin.
The following are quotes from various newspapers about the trip into the Superstition Wilderness and the hiding of the paintings:
"The paintings range in size from miniature originals to full size canvases. The value of an original DeGrazia could range from $3,000 to $33,000."
"The artist said only one other person knows where the paintings are hidden... an Indian who accompanied him to the spot."

DeGrazia and one of his Papago friends hid the paintings in a small cave or tunnel according to reliable sources. The San Diego Union headlined a story "Artist Raps IRS. Burns Paintings," on May 15, 1976. The article stated, "Arizona artist Ted DeGrazia has burned 100 paintings that he valued at over $1.5 million in protest over U.S. Tax laws, the Phoenix Gazette reported yesterday."

Ten people witnessed the burning of DeGrazia’s paintings. The paintings and sketches DeGrazia burned and hid that day were from his early days as an artist. A witness claims DeGrazia burned two insignificant oils, ink and pencil sketches. Another witness who worked for Billy Crader’s Wilderness Safaris claimed DeGrazia only hid one insignificant oil, a couple of ink sketches and a few pencil sketches. The number of paintings, ink and pencil sketches burned is still conjecture among many people.

The action of Ted DeGrazia in May of 1976 is what creates legends of lost treasures. His "fire of protest" may have consumed some of his work, but he left behind a legacy involving a hidden treasure near Angel Springs in Roger’s Canyon. To this day people continue to probe the area around Angel Springs looking for DeGrazia’s cache. Some estimate DeGrazia’s cache of paintings to be worth more than a million dollars. Others claim all he buried were insignificant pencil sketches. The DeGrazia Treasure of the Superstition Wilderness Area will certainly live on in the annuals of the American Southwest.

Today, around Apache Junction, there are many people who claim they accompanied Ted DeGrazia on his trip with Billy Clark Crader. Also there are those in Apache Junction who know exactly who was there and how long they stayed. Again there are many stories still emerging about others who claim they helped DeGrazia bury his oil paintings. Please don’t invest money in any of this idle conversation. It is not the truth. Ted DeGrazia was brilliant entrepreneur and thoroughly understood business, marketing and the promotion of a product. I personally leave it up to a good businessman to say whether or not he burned one or two million dollars worth of oil paintings and ink sketches at Angel Spring or even hid an equal number. Not too long ago a map was floating around Apache Junction attributed to Bob Ward. Some claimed Ward was with Ted DeGrazia when he hid the paintings. I will leave that up to those who really know.

Yes, DeGrazia was an unimaginable eccentric in many ways, but he was always in control of his business, he thoroughly understood marketing of his own talent, and knew how to manipulate his associates. I knew DeGrazia, but I am not too sure I knew him at all. He would stop at my home in the late seventies wanting me to work on his old International Travel-All. The float in the Travel-All’s carburetor would often stick. I would take a screwdriver and tap on it and the engine would run smoothly again. Ted always had to have a good reason to stop. He couldn’t say I am stopping by just to say "Hello".

Ettore "Ted" DeGrazia, a miner son, became a renowned world artist of Native Americans and Hispanic work, died of cancer on September 17, 1982, in Tucson, Arizona. The University of Arizona, his alma mater, refused to hang his artwork in the 1940’s because of his association with Orozco and Rivera, strong Mexican "leftists" in Mexico City. DeGrazia’s tenacity to choose his own associates came back to haunt the university four decades later. His legacy and the legacy of his adopted mountains will live on forever in America and throughout the world.

The Gallery of the Sun in Tucson is displaying the Superstition Mountain series painted by DeGrazia at the Superstition Mountain-Lost Dutchman Mine Museum in Apache Junction this 2013-2014 winter season. For information call the museum at 480-983-4888.
Arizona artist Ettore "Ted" DeGrazia
 August 19, 2013 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.