BY ANY standards it is an attractive proposition for a well-heeled property hunter: an idyllic residential farm, nestled in the North York Moors and set in ten acres of woods and grassland.
But the 18th century Woodlands Farm, deep within the former preindustrial settlement of Rosedale, could be a better investment than the stone and mortar alone suggests.
Sixty years ago, it was home to one of Yorkshire’s great eccentrics - a retired cloth merchant and bathtub admiral called George Baxter. In 1930, he had acquired a painting by the Renaissance master Sebastiano del Piombo, a friend and protégé of Michelangelo.
The Dutch State University of Art pronounced it genuine and valued it at £25,000 at pre-war prices. Baxter, who liked to call himself the Hermit of Rosedale, put it on display for three weeks at Middlesbrough Library, whose custodians insured it for £12,500.
That was in 1933, and hardly anyone has seen the painting since. When Baxter died in 1959, he was believed to have left it behind at Woodlands Farm. And if the next owner can find it there, it will make him an overnight millionaire.
The bizarre story of Baxter and his legacy is the source of Moors legend. Anyone who tried to inquire of its owner, a man who revelled in the self-bestowed titles of Lord Rosedale, Sultan of Zanzibar and Admiral of the French Fleet, was likely to face both barrels of his shotgun.
A sign on his door told its own story. “No interviews. No photographs. No loitering permitted. Beware, the guardian is vigilant.”
“When we moved in, we noticed large iron brackets either side of the windows, and inside there were small wooden latches that could be lifted up from the floor above,” said solicitor Nick Finlayson-Brown, who bought the house ten years ago and is now moving on.
“We got talking to the local historical society, and they said the latches were for the hermit who lived here to stick his gun through at anyone wasn’t invited.
“The brackets were to hold up the iron bar that went across the shutters.”
Baxter’s death, at 63, prompted a veritable gold rush, as overnight art dealers flocked to the Moors in search of del Piombo’s elusive masterpiece, described, by Middlesbrough Library at least, as “the most beautiful picture of Christ in the world”.
But the house and outbuildings were boarded and barricaded. Neither they, nor the surrounding acres, have given up their secret since.
Baxter’s cousin, Elsie Beckwith, recalled after he died: “I know he had the picture, and enjoyed looking at it. I have appealed to the police to help me find it.”
In the intervening period, art prices have outpaced even those of desirable North Yorkshire properties.
Rupert Featherstone, an art historian and director of the Hamilton Kerr institute at Cambridge University, said: “It’s a strange story, and the fact that no-one knows where the painting is quite intriguing.
“In terms of Renaissance studies, Sebastiano is a major figure. The subject matter is a theme that he loved – he did several versions – and if it were a real one, it would obviously be worth a lot of money. You’re probably talking a million or so.”
The new owner of Woodlands Farm will not be short of a few bob in the first place, since the property has an asking price of £500,000.
Estate agent Jack Ayres-Sumner, of Boulton and Cooper in Malton, said the three-bedroom estate would be ideal as a holiday cottage or a full-time residence for the right person, as a smallholding.
Mr Finlayson-Brown, whose family hails from Sheffield, said he bought it after falling in love with the Moors on childhood outings en route to Scarborough.
Upon moving in, he guessed something was afoot when the builders he had hired to renovate the old place began punching holes in the chimney breasts.
“We’ve never found the painting, but the story in the village is that it’s somewhere in or around the house,” he said.
“I think it could still be here. There are some really old beams that the floorboards sit on, and I just wondered if he lifted them off, or hollowed out one of the walls.
“But short of ripping the place up, we’ll never know.”