An unknown 1934 oil painting, unrecognized for nearly 50 years as being by the well-known Precisionist artist Charles Sheeler, has been discovered in an Interior Department closet. In June, a smaller Sheeler painting from 1931 brought $1.8 million at a Sotheby's art auction.

The painting, "Connecticut Barns," about 32 by 34 inches, cost the United States government $221.85, Sheeler's pay in the Public Works Art Project, a Depression program, said Karel Yasko. Yasko is the General Services Administration art and preservation consultant who has headed a hunt since 1970 for some 6,000 pieces of art from government art projects of the Depression era. Yasko said he has found about 300, but "no others in this class."

The Sheeler was found in May by Arlene Platt, an art historian who conducted an intensive search for lost art this spring in 50 government buildings.

"She asked this guy in the Interior Department if he had any art in his office. And he said, well, he'd found a painting on the wall but he didn't like it so he stuck it in the closet," said Yasko.

Platt and Quentin Smith, the GSA art liaison, saw that Sheeler signed the painting on the front. The frame carries a brass plaque on the front and a label on the back identifying it as being a Public Works Art Project product.

"There's no doubt it is an important discovery. It would be a hot number out on the market," said Harry Lowe, deputy director of the National Museum of American Art, where the newly discovered painting is currently housed. "Sheeler didn't paint that many oils, though he was already well-known as a photographer and as a painter when this one was painted."

"Connecticut Barns" shows barns and trees, closely resembling a smaller Sheeler watercolor, called "Connecticut Barns and Landscape," according to Lowe.

The watercolor, also from 1934 and perhaps a study for the oil painting, is reproduced in "Charles Sheeler: Paintings, Drawings and Photographs," by Martin Friedman, the standard work on Sheeler.

Yasko said the painting "is a charming picture, realistic, but moving into cubism.

"We didn't even know Sheeler worked for the arts project," said Yasko, "because his name was misspelled in our records.

"But we checked further and found he worked with the project, first for $30.60 a week, later raised to $38.25 a week from January 5, 1934 to March 15, 1934, when he was laid off when the project ran out of funds."

Greta Meilman, Sotheby's American painting expert, said: "It's a very exciting find. Especially since no one knew it existed. I have no idea what it would bring on the market, but we'd certainly like to try it. The fact that it is an unknown painting, found after languishing for years, adds to its mystery and value. Of course, the 'Classic Landscape,' which brought $1.8 million, was an extraordinary painting bringing an extraordinary price."

Yasko and Lowe said the painting is in good condition, though it does have a small tear.

Yasko said when he first saw the painting in May, "I valued it roughly about $250,000. I put it in my office--I'm the only one who has a key--planning to send it over the the American art museum with a few more. I was sort of waiting until there was only an eight-inch aisle to my desk. But when I heard that a Sheeler sold at Sotheby's for $1.8 million, I sent it over to the museum in a hurry."

The Sheeler isn't the only find. Platt also turned up, in the attic of the Internal Revenue Service, a small study for Rockwell Kent's famous mural in the Post Office Administration Building, called "Delivering the Mail in Puerto Rico."

The mural became celebrated when a United Press reporter found that a letter in the hand of a figure in the mural was in the Kuskokwin Eskimo Indian dialect. She got Vilhjamur Stefanson, a Norwegian arctic explorer, to translate the message which said: "To the people of Puerto Rico. Go ahead. Let us change chiefs. That alone can make us equal and free."

Since Puerto Rico's independence from the United States was a fiery subject and Kent was known to be a leftist, some effort was made to have the message painted out. But Admiral Christian Joy Peoples, head of GSA's predecessor organization, said, according to Yasko, "To hell with that. Stefanson and Rockwell Kent are the only two people in the United States who can read it."

The Yasko project made another find with the help of Betty Monkman, the White House fine arts registrar. A painting of the LeMoyne House in Washington, Pa., by an uncelebrated artist, was selected by President Roosevelt from a Public Works Art Project exhibit at the Corcoran Art Gallery, along with 49 prints to hang at the White House. Yasko had heard that, after Roosevelt's death, Eleanor Roosevelt had invited the White House servants to each pick a print as a souvenir.

"So we were very surprised with Betty Monkman found this oil. It was rather dirty, but was documented as the one Roosevelt kept in his conference office for all his terms."