Stolen art discovered in reclusive collector’s estate

Christie’s and the Stair Galleries both cancelled sales as a result


New York

The discovery of stolen works of art in a collection consigned to two auction houses has forced both to cancel sales. The stolen art came to light at Christie’s and at the Stair Galleries, Hudson, both of which included items from the estate of the late collector William Kingsland, in their October sales.

The works include a bronze bust by Giacometti, Tête de Diego, which the Giacometti Foundation says was stolen from a New York gallery in 1967, and a portrait by American artist John Singleton Copley, Second Earl of Bessborough (1790), taken from Harvard University 35 years ago. It is not known whether the collector, who has been described as an “eccentric”, knew the art was stolen.

Mr Kingsland left no will, so the estate is being handled by a New York public administrator, who consigned some of the works to Christie’s. It soon realised that four paintings had been listed as stolen in the 1960s, including a watercolour by Odilon Redon, Jeune Fille et Fleurs, two works by Fairfield Porter, Northwest Wind and View with a Sailboat, and a collage by Kurt Schwitters.

Christie’s has given the entire list of items consigned from the collection to the FBI, Bendetta Roux, a spokeswoman for the auction house, told The Art Newspaper.

Because of these provenance questions, Christie’s in London also cancelled the sale of a Morandi from its Italian sale in October, and withdrew a Bosschaert, which had appeared in its old masters paintings auction the same month. Because of the investigation Christie’s could not provide information on the return of works to their original owners, Ms Roux said.

Colin Stair, of the Stair Galleries, told The Art Newspaper that only two works of art consigned to it had been identified as stolen, both taken from Harvard: the Copley portrait and a portrait of Harvard 19th-century president John Kirkland. The gallery cancelled the sales of all items from the estate at its 14-15 October auctions, amounting to 160 works. These pieces had made $250,000, with the Copley portrait selling for $85,000. The FBI is sifting through the sold items first and then will investigate the pieces that failed to sell, around 400 items in all.

Mr Stair said: “Our hope is that the FBI will clear the sales of all items [apart from the two works taken from Harvard], and allow them to go forward as originally transacted.” He added that the administrator had signed a standard consignment agreement stating that the estate had clear legal title to the art. About 80% of the sold items have been returned to Stair, he said, but in most cases, art which had left the country within a few days of the auction has not yet been returned by the buyers.

Mr Stair also revealed that initially it had also been assumed that the Harvard painting was not a Copley, because Christie’s, which had the first pick of the estate, had not selected it. This led the gallery to assume that it was valued at under $5,000. “The picture had a mile of varnish on it, very, very thick,” Mr Stair added.

Meanwhile, Harvard University is working with the public administrator and the FBI to get back its works. The Copley and the second Harvard painting will be returned, but no date has been set, Luann Abrahams, the assistant director for administration at the Harvard University Art Museums, told The Art Newspaper. Harvard had reported the disappearance of the Copley to the Art Dealers Association at the time, which later passed its records to the Art Loss Register when it was created, she said. No insurance claim was filed for the painting.