How Paintings Lost in a Small Town Art Theft Were Recovered 50 Years Later
On a Wednesday evening in February 1972, as police and emergency responders in New Paltz, NY, flocked to a fire, someone ripped a pair of 19th-century portraits of a wealthy local couple from a historical society elsewhere in town.
The theft also resulted in the loss of dozens of three-century-old items, including a prayer book, a powder horn and antique guns and swords. At the time, the company’s president estimated the items were worth around $30,000, a figure he said was dwarfed by the sentimental value they offered to the historic community, located about 85 miles north. of New York and settled in the 17th century by the descendants of French Protestants.
Many of the items were salvaged from a Manhattan thrift store several weeks later, but the paintings from the 1820s – brooding portraits of a rosy-cheeked man with a puckered mouth and a woman holding a snuffbox – did not not part.
This month – more than 50 years after the theft – the FBI announced that the portraits had been returned to the society, Historic Huguenot Street, thanks in part to the persistent detective work of two local detectives – a curator and a librarian.
Immediately after the crime took place, it was steeped in intrigue. Local officials have hypothesized that the fire, in a building of veterans of foreign wars, was linked to theft, a theory which gained ground in a local newspaper. As police responded to the blaze, “thieves had a free hand on Huguenot Street,” the Daily Freeman of Kingston, NY reported.
The paintings were made in oil by Ammi Phillips, famous 19th century portrait painter, and represented Dirc D. Wynkoop and his wife, Annatje Eltingge, key characters in the history of New Paltz. Mr. Wynkoop owned farmland that had helped feed American settlers during the Revolutionary War. It had a darker history which was also linked to that of the nascent country: it owned slaves.
For Carol Johnson, a librarian at the Elting Memorial Library in New Paltz and a trustee of the society, the theft of the paintings deprived local residents of a chance to learn how their history was connected to the larger history of America. , warts and all.
As the coronavirus pandemic took hold in 2020, Ms Johnson teamed up with Josephine Bloodgood, the historical society curator, to create an exhibit about a man named Jacob Wynkoop, a New Paltz carpenter who was among the first black men in the community. vote and who fought in the civil war. Jacob Wynkoop’s father had been enslaved by Dirck D. Wynkoop.
Their mutual interest in Jacob Wynkoop led Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Bloodgood to try to solve the mystery of the missing paintings.
Ms Johnson and Ms Bloodgood were armed with a black and white postcard image of the stolen portraits which had been distributed to art dealers shortly after the theft. They compared notes and recordings, but quickly encountered an obstacle: the paintings, to their knowledge, simply had not resurfaced for half a century since their catch.
A break occurred around June 2020, when they spotted the paintings in an online catalog of works by Mr Phillips. The catalog stated that the portraits were of unidentified subjects and that they had been auctioned by Sotheby’s in 2005.
“There was a shock that they were out there in plain sight,” Ms Bloodgood said.
After buying a Sotheby’s catalog on eBay, Ms Bloodgood confirmed that the paintings had in fact been auctioned in 2005 and sold for around $13,000, a pittance compared to some of the most famous works. famous Mr. Phillips. .
Their research in hand, the two women contacted the FBI, which has a team dedicated to artistic crime. She subpoenaed Sotheby’s and discovered the name of the buyer, who was unaware the paintings had been stolen, according to the FBI and investigators. The buyer agreed to hand over the paintings, the researchers said, although it is unclear whether the buyer received any money in return.
“It’s so rare to have portraits of individuals from this early period, especially for New Paltz,” Ms. Bloodgood said. “We are thrilled to have Wynkoop’s portraits back in the collection, where they can once again be interpreted to tell a fuller story of our community and how it relates to our country’s rich and complicated history.”
The researchers never contacted Sotheby’s for help. The couple’s names were on the back of the paintings. Ms Johnson said that should have been enough for the auction house to know the paintings had been stolen.
“We couldn’t understand why Sotheby’s hadn’t done their due diligence and researched these paintings,” Ms Johnson said. Sotheby’s did not respond to messages seeking comment.
A lack of transparency between auction houses and a desire to protect the privacy of art buyers and sellers create a culture in which art theft can thrive, said Erin Thompson, associate professor of art crime. at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Dr. Thompson says that auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christian ‘argue that art is often sold in delicate circumstances – the “three d” of death, divorce and debt. According to Dr. Thompson, these are the circumstances that auction houses claim for confidentiality.
“From my point of view-art critic suspect and cynical-it creates an opportunity to whiten stolen or looted objects, as seems to have occurred with them,” she said, adding that it was unclear what documents Sotheby’s had received with the paintings. “Who knows how compelling this paperwork is or what the auction house asked for?”
The FBI could not be reached. Ms Johnson and Ms Bloodgood said an officer told them the statute of limitations had passed. Even though the paintings are back in the hands of the historical society, which was Ms Johnson and Ms Bloodgood’s main focus, the women still haven’t solved the mystery of who took them in the first place.
They plan to continue exploring this question while trying to locate other items lost in the theft.
Jack Beg contributed to the research.