On a Wednesday evening in February 1972, when police officers and emergency responders in New Paltz, New York, flocked to a fire, someone snatched a pair of 19th-century photographs of a wealthy local couple from a historic community elsewhere in the city.
The theft also led to the loss of dozens of items, dating back three centuries, including a prayer book, gunpowder horn, rifles, and ancient swords. At the time, the president of the association estimated the items at about $30,000, a number he said paled in comparison to the sentimental value they provided to the historic community, which is located about 85 miles north of New York City and was settled on the 17th. century by the descendants of French Protestants.
Many of the items were retrieved at a Manhattan thrift store several weeks later, but the paintings from the 1820s—sad portraits of a rosy-cheeked man with a wrinkled mouth and a woman holding a snuff box—were not among them.
This month – more than 50 years after the theft – The FBI announced That the photographs have been returned to the community, Historic Huguenot Street, is thanks in part to the ongoing investigative work of two local detectives – a librarian and a librarian.
Immediately after the crime, it was full of intrigue. Local officials have speculated that the fire, which occurred in the Foreign Wars Veterans Building, was linked to the robbery, a theory that gained momentum in a local newspaper. The Daily Freeman in Kingston, New York, reported that while police responded to the fire, “the thieves released their hands on Huguenot Street.”
The paintings were done in oil by Amy Phillips, a famous portrait painter of the 19th century, and they depicted Dirk D. Mr. Wynkoop owns the farmland that helped feed the American colonists during the Revolutionary War. He had a darker history that was also connected to that of Valladolid: he owned slaves.
For Carol Johnson, a librarian at the Elting Memorial Library in New Paltz and curator of the community, plaque theft denied locals the chance to learn how their history relates to the broader story of America, warts and all.
With the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Ms. Johnson joined forces with Josephine Bloodgood, Curator of the Historical Society, to create an exhibition about a man named Jacob Wincope, a carpenter from New Paltz who was among the first black men in the community. To vote and who fought in the civil war. Jacob Winkop’s father was enslaved by Dirk D.
Their common interest in Jacob Winkoop led Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Bloodgood to solve the mystery of the missing paintings.
Johnson and Mrs. Bloodgood were armed with a black and white postcard picture of the stolen photos that were distributed to art dealers shortly after the theft. They compared notes and records but soon ran into a hurdle: the paintings, as far as they knew, had simply not appeared in the half century since they were taken.
A break occurred around June 2020, when they discovered the paintings in an online catalog of Mr. Phillips’ works. The catalog stated that the photos were of unknown people and that Sotheby’s auctioned them in 2005.
“It was a shock that they were there in plain sight,” Mrs. Bloodgood said.
After purchasing Sotheby’s catalog from eBay, Ms. Bloodgood confirmed that the paintings were in fact put up for auction in 2005, and that they sold for about $13,000, a paltry sum compared to some of Mr. Phillips’ more famous works.
With their research in hand, the two women contact the FBI, which has a dedicated art crime team. Sotheby’s called and discovered the name of the buyer, who didn’t know the paintings had been stolen, according to the FBI and researchers. The researchers said the buyer agreed to hand over the paintings, though it was not clear if the buyer received the money in return.
“It’s very rare to take photographs of individuals from this early period, especially of New Paltz,” said Mrs. Bloodgood. “We are so excited to have Wynkoop’s photos back on the set, where they can once again be interpreted to tell a full story about our society and how they relate to the rich and complex history of our country.”
The researchers never contacted Sotheby’s for help. The names of the spouses were on the back of the plates. Ms Johnson said that should have been enough information for the auction house to know the paintings were stolen.
“We couldn’t understand why Sotheby’s had not done its due diligence and searched for these paintings,” Ms Johnson said. Sotheby’s did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Erin Thompson, associate professor of art crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the 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.
Dr. Thompson says auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s argue that art is often sold under delicate circumstances – the “three points” of death, divorce and debt. According to Dr. Thompson, these are the circumstances in which auction houses claim to beg for privacy.
“In my view – a shady and cynical art critic – it creates an opportunity to wash away stolen or looted objects, as apparently happened with these,” she said, adding that it was not clear what papers Sotheby’s received with the paintings. “Who knows how convincing these papers were or what the auction house ordered?”
The FBI cannot be reached. Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Bloodgood said they were told by an agent that the statute of limitations had passed. Although the paintings have returned to the hands of the Historical Society, the primary target of Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Bloodgood, the women still have not solved the mystery of who took them in the first place.
They plan to continue exploring this question as they try to locate other items missing in the theft.
Jack Big Contribute to research.