The Purloined Paintings – 7 tips

Purloined paintings recovered - and 6 crucial notes

The impossible happened late last month.  Two paintings, puloined from the collector’s home in a burglary three years ago, resurfaced and have been returned to their owner.  Finally reunited at a police station, the officer on duty said “this never happens”.  The moment of recovery was ecstatic.  The paintings are in my care now, getting cleaned up and repaired.  Soon they’ll be home where they belong.  The story illustrates the often avoided subject of misadventure; here are 7 tips for starters:

1.  The “stolen art alert” worked

Bicycles, computers, cars… all the identifying marks & numbers get removed upon theft.  But only a fool would remove an artist’s signature & labels.  That can work in your favor.  When this theft occurred, I set up a web page on my site, hoping at some point someone would look up the artist.  It worked.  I got the call and the first lead in three years.

Putting yourself in the shoes of the buyer, if you believe you have made a legitimate purchase, even a great “find”, why would you look beyond the artist?  Though there are lots of online registries, and image searches are improving, there really is nothing as direct as the artist’s link.

2.   Artwork is more than a commodity

In this case, the owner went the extra mile to recover these paintings, which technically at the time of recovery belonged to the insurance company.  Her reaction and response delighted me because it was so genuine and intense.  I invest in every painting I make, and to see the owner’s joy at recovery equal to mine was proof that we had made a connection through art.

Here’s the caution:  remember that when emotions are high, you are vulnerable.  In this case, a little deep breathing and communication with insurance and cops assured all went smoothly.

3.  Documentation is worth keeping

Keeping good records of your art is a good idea for many reasons; this case reconfirmed it.  It reminded me of an episode of Antiques Roadshow about a Palm Springs collector who had filled a storage container with precious artwork during a home remodel, only to go out and find the container emptied by theft.  Very sad.  My memory is of the binders he showed on TV with tons of documentation on each painting.  He wound up getting some of those paintings back too.

When you buy a piece of art, make a note of all the markings on the piece.  Signature location, marks on the stretcher bars, labels, that kind of thing.  If you’ve purchased a piece from me, you’ll get a copy of the “inventory/catalogue worksheet” that describes all this in detail.   (Contact me if you need a new copy.)

Keep your bill of sale.  Make sure it is dated.  (I keep sales records too.)

Take photos of it all, and email them to yourself or someone close to you, so they exist somewhere else besides with the piece.

In the unfortunate event of theft, make a police report, get a copy, and hang on to it.  It can be decades before artwork resurfaces.

4.  Frames & varnish protect your art

In this case, the frames took a beating but they really protected the paintings from excessive damage during some part of their odyssey.  Same with the varnishes.

I know there are a few paintings out there that never came back in for their final varnish, and I’ve made a note to myself to connect with these owners again.

5.  The artist is a resource for restoration

Whether by accident or other misadventure, when restoration is needed, the artist is the best resource for condition evaluation, original materials, pigments, and processes.  It’s one more reason to keep in touch with a living artist.

I was glad to have my notes, photos, memories, and intentions of making these works as I dug in to their conservation.

6.  Be smart about publicity

I don’t think publicity factored into this case, but the police warn about it anyway, so here it is.  Use caution in publicizing your acquisitions too freely or widely.  Think twice about posting to social media your high-value artwork, complete with a GPS marker, along with the fact that you’re going on vacation.  Be careful who you tell what’s in the house and how much it’s worth.  Check out and monitor security practices for offsite storage and evaluate your own.

7.  If you have insurance, know how it works

In this case, the collector had carefully questioned the company about what would happen if the artwork were to surface again – she really wanted it back.  So she knew what to do as this played out.

Ask questions of yourself as well as the insurance company.  It pays to be curious.  What is appropriate for each piece?  No insurance, a general policy, a special artwork rider?  If you have a security system do you get a break?  Keep your valuations up to date (and understand the valuation, a subject of its own for another time.)

The dilemma, and one more painting

The dilemma with art theft is that, once a claim is paid, the insurance company usually owns the art.  So the person looking for its return, the collector, is not the legal owner, and often the person in possession of it is not the original thief.  It makes recovery tricky and uncommon.

Very often a collector will take the insurance check and move on.  Unless the artwork is very well known and very valuable,the company won’t pursue discovery.  So unfortunately people have been known to take advantage of this in assessing the risk of owning and selling stolen artwork.

I’m so glad this part of the story had a happy ending.  Now, there’s still one more painting out there, taken in the same heist, by the artist Irene Klar, titled Up the Creek Without a Paddle (I kid you not).  A beautiful watercolor of women in a canoe.  If you have any information about its location, drop a note and I’ll pass it on…

“The fact is, we have all been a good deal puzzled because the affair is so simple, and yet baffles us altogether”   Edgar Allen Poe, The Purloined Letter

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