Mystery painting of WWII vet found, returned to family

Veteran's daughter never knew painting existed

By Amy Viteri - Investigative Reporter

MIAMI SPRINGS, Fla. - It was a mystery that hung on the wall of Jairo Florez's Miami Springs home for 25 years.

"(I) put it on the wall and it kind of became part of the family," Florez said.

Before retiring, Florez worked installing safes and vaults in banks.  

"I worked at Total Bank on Biscayne (Boulevard) and (Northeast) 17th (Street)," he said. "There was a crate up on the second floor where they had all the scrap things."

When the bank was demolished in the 1990s, the manager told Florez the painting was his. He assumed, based on the size -- more than 5 feet tall -- it would be of a landscape.

Instead, he found a portrait of a stern man in a military uniform. 

"When we saw that picture, I said, 'Oh my goodness. What am I going to do with this?'" Florez said.

But intrigued, he decided to keep it.

"I always say, 'Hi, general. Good morning, general,'" Florez said about the painting, which hangs right outside his bedroom."I was very curious. I didn't want to throw it away. It was a beautiful painting. It's a huge painting. You could see it was good quality."

It wasn't until 2015, when Florez's nephew, Lt. Rick Kidder, retired from the Navy that he began to hope they could identify the man in the uniform.

"I would always see this military painting on the wall," Kidder said. "And I started to research the different campaigns, the ribbons and the medals he had."

The painstaking search took two years. Then, finally, there was a result.  

"One night this face just popped up, and I knew that was him," Kidder said.

The man he found was Maj. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault.

During World War II, Chennault led a group of American volunteer pilots, known as the Flying Tigers, who are often credited with defending China from Japanese forces after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

What's more, Kidder discovered the general has a daughter and that  she's living in Florida.   

"Can you imagine there's a painting of your father that passed in 1958 that you didn't know existed and it's the largest in existence? Wow!" Kidder said. "That's huge."

 Florez and Kidder contacted Cynthia Chennault, a professor of Chinese at the University of Florida.

In January, the men packed up the painting and drove it to Gainesville to reunite father and daughter. 

"She said, 'It looks just like daddy,' when she saw the picture," Florez said.

Chennault said seeing the painting was an emotional moment for her.  

"It was a complete surprise," Chennault said via Skype.

Chennault said she never knew the painting existed and must be based on a photograph.

Her father, who died in 1958 when she was 8 years old, never sat for a portrait.

"I suspect that it was a Chinese artist who painted this one, and I would love to know who it was who painted it," Chennault said.

But the painter never signed the work.

How the piece of history ended up in South Florida, in a downtown Miami bank, is still a mystery.

"I have no idea at all, and that is a mystery I would love to unravel," Chennault said.

Chennault said she is grateful to the men for keeping her father's painting safe all these years.

She plans to enjoy it for a while but says eventually she would like to donate it to the Smithsonian or another museum dedicated to the Flying Tigers.

Florez said for him it's good enough knowing the general is where he belongs.  

"That makes me very happy, you know, that he is resting at home and he is with his family," he said.

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