Delving into history can be like opening a treasure chest filled with jewels -- each piece is more stunning than the last.
In this case the crown jewel is a 73-year-old carved and inlaid wood wall mural in the lobby of the East Bakersfield High School auditorium.
And the treasure hunters are students in history teacher Mike Warner's archives class.
Warner recently described the way he and his students felt when they discovered in a 1940 issue of The Kernal, the school newspaper, that the mural was created by a noted California artist named Anthony B. Heinsbergen.
"When we found the artist's name, and that he was famous, we felt like Indiana Jones," he said. "We were all doing the happy dance up in the classroom."
A short while later, they discovered in the Jan. 2, 1940, minutes of the high school board of trustees that Charles Biggar, the local architect who designed the school, had introduced the artist to the board members.
Heinsbergen, a native of the Netherlands, came with his family to the United States in 1906 and settled in Los Angeles. He died in 1981 at age 86.
During his lifetime he did decorative work for the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and Los Angeles City Hall. His work also appears in many California movie theaters, including the Fox Theater in Fresno.
Discovery of the artist and his stature came about three years ago when the students were archiving and cataloging various artifacts. They eventually got to the mural, which consists of hundreds of very thin pieces of wood from America and other countries depicting pioneers and explorers, tall buildings, oil derricks and oilfield workers as well as local crops.
They noted that it was slightly damaged. The students knew the work had been done by a noted artist, which led to the question of whether the mural was worth restoring and how to determine the cost of doing the work.
In doing so, Warner and Steve Lackey, assistant director of business services for Kern High School District, consulted several professional art appraisers, including local resident C. Lee Clark, John Edward Powell of Fresno and two professionals in the Bay Area. Apparently all those contacted agreed the artwork was worth saving.
As Powell said, in an email: "It would, in my professional opinion, be short-sighted and ill-advised to proceed with restoration of the Heinsbergen mural without first retaining the services of a certified art conservator. My hope is that the KHSD will approach this project with enormous care, since a Heinsbergen mural is a significant national cultural asset, not just a local work of art."
The first step, according to Warner, is to get the mural appraised, but "I found appraisers do not come cheap," the teacher noted.
Estimated fee -- just for the appraisal, not the restoration -- is $1,000. At present, the KHSD budget does not allow for such an expenditure, but Warren is hoping that a funding solution can be found.
Meanwhile, the archives class has gathered information about nearly a dozen paintings that hang in the library, now known as the media center.
"These pieces (were) valued at over $600,000 in the last appraisal," Warner said.
Without stating a dollar amount, he said "Montecito Hills," an oil painting by German-born California artist William Wendt, is the most valuable piece in the collection. The landscape was a gift of the senior class of 1944.
Two paintings have ties to both educators at Bakersfield High School and East. One is a portrait of Kenneth W. Rich, East's first principal, done by Edgar Louis Ewing; the other is a still life by longtime BHS art teacher Ruth Emerson.
According to the archivists' notes, the Emerson painting was purchased in 1943 by a school service club. The teacher sold the painting "to raise money for Chinese and Russian war relief."
Also in the collection are two drawings -- one of a boy, the other a girl -- by famed Mexican artist Diego Rivera. At one time it was thought they were originals but it has since been determined that they are prints.
As for the Heinsbergen mural, The Kernal article notes that Lois Smith, the school's art teacher at the time, "is very pleased with the mural and feels that the student body will be proud of it."