On a Wednesday night in February 1972, as police and emergency services flocked to a fire in New Paltz, NY, someone snatched a pair of 19th-century portraits of an affluent local couple from a historic society elsewhere in town.
The theft also resulted in the loss of dozens of items, some three centuries old, including a prayer book, a powder horn and antique guns and swords. At the time, the association’s president valued the items at about $30,000, a figure he felt dwarfed by the sentimental value they offered to the historic community, which is located about 85 miles north of New York City and was dated in the 17th century. founded. century by the descendants of French Protestants.
Many of the items were recovered several weeks later at a Manhattan thrift store, but the 1820s paintings—gloomy portraits of a rosy-cheeked man with a puckered mouth and a woman with a snuffbox—were not among them.
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 continued detective work of two local sleuths — a curator and a librarian.
Immediately after the crime took place, it was steeped in intrigue. Local officials speculated that the fire, at a Veterans of Foreign Wars building, was linked to the theft, a theory that gained popularity in a local newspaper. While police responded to the fire, “the robbers had free rein on Huguenot Street,” reported The Daily Freeman of Kingston, NY.
The paintings were done in oil by Ammi Phillips, a famous 19th-century portraitist, and they depicted Dirck D. Wynkoop and his wife Annatje Eltinge, key figures in New Paltz history. Mr. Wynkoop owned farmland that had helped feed the American settlers during the Revolutionary War. He had a darker history that was also intertwined with that of the young country: he 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 robbed local residents of an opportunity to learn how their histories connected with America’s wider story, warts and all. .
When the coronavirus pandemic broke out 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 became one of the first black men in the world. community was voting and who fought in the civil war. Jacob Wynkoop’s father was enslaved by Dirck D. Wynkoop.
Their mutual interest in Jacob Wynkoop led Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Bloodgood 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 distributed to art dealers shortly after the theft. They compared notes and records, but soon ran into a roadblock: The paintings, as far as they knew, simply hadn’t surfaced in half a century since they were taken.
A break came around June 2020, when they saw the paintings in an online catalog of works by Mr Phillips. The catalog stated that the portraits were of unidentified subjects and that they were sold at auction by Sotheby’s in 2005.
“It was a shock that they were there in plain sight,” said Ms. Bloodgood.
After purchasing a Sotheby’s catalog from eBay, Ms. Bloodgood confirmed that the paintings had, in fact, been auctioned off in 2005 and sold for about $13,000, a paltry amount compared to some of Mr. Phillips’s better-known works.
With their investigation in hand, the two women contacted the FBI, which has a team dedicated to art crime. It sued Sotheby’s and discovered the name of the buyer, who, according to the FBI and investigators, did not know that the paintings had been stolen. The buyer agreed to transfer the paintings, the researchers said, although it was unclear whether the buyer got any money in return.
“It’s so rare to have portraits of individuals from this early period, especially for New Paltz,” said Ms. Bloodgood. “We are so pleased that the Wynkoop portraits are back in the collection, where they can be reinterpreted to tell a more complete story about our community and how it relates to our country’s rich and complicated history.”
The investigators never contacted Sotheby’s for help. The couple’s names were on the back of the paintings. Ms Johnson said this should have been enough information for the auction house to know that the paintings had been stolen.
“We couldn’t understand why Sotheby’s didn’t do their due diligence and look up these paintings,” Ms Johnson said. Sotheby’s did not respond to messages requesting comment.
A lack of transparency at 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, an associate professor of art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
dr. Thompson says auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s claim that art is often sold under sensitive circumstances — the “three D’s” of death, divorce and debt. According to Dr. Thompson, these are the circumstances in which the auction houses beg for privacy.
“From the perspective of me — a distrustful, cynical art critic — it creates the opportunity to launder stolen or looted objects, as this seems to have happened,” she said, adding that it was unclear what papers Sotheby’s received with the paintings. “Who knows how convincing that paperwork is or what the auction house asked for?”
The FBI could not be reached. Ms Johnson and Ms Bloodgood said an officer had told them the statute of limitations had expired. Although the paintings are back in the hands of the historical society, which was Ms. Johnson and Ms. Bloodgood’s main goal, the women still haven’t solved the mystery of who took them in the first place.
They plan to continue investigating that question as they try to locate other items lost in the theft.
Jack Begg research contributed.