Apr 12

“Misappropriated” Navy Art

Monday, April 12, 2010 1:00 AM


This is a topic that really gets me on my soapbox and I’m not too likely to pull any punches when talking about some of the experiences we’ve had with chasing down “misappropriated” art and irresponsible borrowers. We might wish to call it “stolen” art, but we must make allowances for the possibility of a misunderstanding having occurred.

“Windward Hill,” by Albert Murray, Oil on canvas, 1943, 88-195-AO

The Internet and online auctions are useful things for museums looking for misappropriated art. This painting of camouflaged anti-aircraft batteries at Guantanamo Bay was the first missing painting I found on eBay in 2001. Our earliest record of it being missing was dated 1970, but it was likely gone long before then. It was easy to prove it was ours because the first thing the Combat Art Section did when artists turned in paintings was to number them right on the front, usually next to the signature. Often the second thing they did was take a picture of it. Most artists wrote descriptive captions that they sent in with the pictures. For this painting, the number on the front of the painting corresponded to the caption that described the scene.

When a curator needs to get an item removed from an auction, either online or at an auction house, the first thing they need to learn is that the auction house doesn’t want to talk to curators. It wants to hear from law enforcement. For the recovery of my first painting, a very nice United States Attorney in New Jersey did the honors. The painting somehow had made it all the way to New Jersey, so that’s where I went to pick it up. An NCIS agent went with me to make it official.

Recoveries are a bit nerve-wracking because the fact that they’re in an auction puts things on a deadline. Recovery will get a lot messier if the painting changes hands again. After the first recovery, I would have been just as happy if another had never appeared.

” Castelmarre, Bay of Naples,” by Albert Murray, Watercolor, 1944, 88-195-GE

This was the second eBay recovery. The very nice people of NCIS in Florida handled this return for us. It was very amusing the way it transpired. By chance, I saw the auction the same day I was hanging pictures in a high level Pentagon office. The appreciative incumbent said, “If there’s anything I can ever do for you…” and I asked for help getting the auction stopped. By the end of the day NCIS was on red alert. The field agent who handled it in the end told me that the bosses were planning a sting operation until the sensible field agent said “Let’s just go knock on the seller’s door and see what happens.” The seller was very understanding, said she’d bought it in a yard sale and gave it up immediately. This painting had been listed as missing before 1969.

A lot of auction houses are putting their catalogs online these days, so it has expanded my surfing area. I have several search criteria that make the task efficient. Having worked with Navy combat art for 20+ years, I’m pretty good at spotting them.

“Seagoing Rescue Tugs,” by Vernon Howe Bailey, Watercolor, 1942, 88-165-LN

This painting recently returned to us from a DC area auction house. The consignor had found it at a Goodwill store, I’m told. Its last location before it went missing was with the Bureau of Ships before 1969. One of our local NCIS agents very kindly visited the auction house two hours before the start of our first big snowstorm in February to let them know the Navy had a claim on the painting.

There’s a saying in the art world that there are two victims in an art theft. The first is the owner that lost the artwork. The second is the poor soul who is in possession of the artwork when it is recovered. That is because they probably paid some money for the item and often there is no compensation offered. This is certainly true of the U.S. Government, where there is neither compensation nor reward. In purchasing military art, “buyer beware.”

“Old Salt of the Sixth Fleet,” by Frank Zuccarelli, Oil on canvas, 1972, 88-163-AY

The recovery of this painting, which happened in early 2009, was a little unusual. Its last known location before it disappeared around 1998 was a high level Pentagon office. The office had moved, the administration had changed, the person who originally signed for it was gone, the staff had dispersed, and the one person left had no idea what I was talking about when I showed her the picture. Or did she? I wasn’t convinced by her reaction, so I made a “Wanted” poster and passed it out in the Pentagon. The Photographic Section had it on their section of the NHC/NHHC webpage. I occasionally ran into former members of the office and asked them. Some remembered the painting but no one knew where it went. Finally, I was inspired to do some research to discover who was in charge of the office right before we believed it vanished. It was a well-known person, so well known that I was discouraged from making contact. Eventually, an opportunity presented itself and a co-worker who was a Naval Academy classmate of this person, called him up and asked about the painting. “Sure, I have it right here,” he said. A couple of weeks later we had the pleasure of presenting him with a reproduction in return for the original. Score one for the ring-knockers. He said that his staff had given it to him as a going-away present. Which brings us to another point about misappropriated property: you can’t pass a bad title. If you don’t own something, no matter how many times it changes hands, ownership of the item doesn’t magically become legal at some point, even if you have a credible tale to cover you.

Nowadays we try to keep a closer eye on our borrowers. We have strict rules about borrowing paintings, borrowers sign an annual loan agreement, and we do office inspections. Still, some folks (not all) have a strong sense of entitlement without responsibility and offices move without telling us, incumbents leave and don’t tell us, or other weird things happen. The stories are numerous. But rest assured, until every borrower is honest and every painting is home, we’ll keep looking.

The Combat Art Program was founded to inform the public about the good work of the Navy, so we feel that traveling exhibits and loans to other museums’ exhibits are more appropriate to our mission. We will have information on one of those exhibits next week and in future postings.

  • Crystal Polis

    Wow! Old Salt has returned home! I never heard that piece of good news! I was still keeping my eye out for that one…

  • Andy (JADAA)

    How about the willful destruction of Navy art? The old BOQ at the former NAS Alameda had a series of elegant, beautiful WPA-style murals done during WWII on the stucco walls of its wardroom. as an erstwhile student of art history as an undergrad, I can assure you the quality, use of tone, color and shadow, among other aspects of these paintings, were masterful. Over the years the graceful figures from mythos and history gazed down upon officers as they dined. That is until the very early 1990’s when a political appointee from the administration from 1993 to 2001 took great umbrage to the fact that in WWII an artist dared to paint aspects of the female form that lacked the, er, proper 1990’s feminist sensibilities and were therefore demeaning to all women and sexist. The paintings instantly disappeared and, so I was informed when inquiring about them, destroyed. The Taliban does not have a corner on the willful destruction of art from another age.

  • I also remember seeing on the Navy Art website (long ago) that “Old Salt” was missing. Very interesting story how you recovered it. I’m dying to know who it was gifted to, but I’m guessing that’s going to stay sub rosa.

  • NHHC

    Thanks to everyone for commenting! Much appreciated!!! Please be sure to tell your friends about our new blog. Thanks!

  • It seems that some regard government-owned art and especially combat art as public domain in the sense that possession is ownership. If it can be done without significant expense the public should be educated to the existence of government-owned art and what public ownership implies. More importantly it should be exhibited as often as possible, both as the physical piece of art and its electronic image. It should be possible to convince those who are publishing books on military topics to include these images in their work.

  • Navy Art Staff

    You don’t have to convince us that all the services need more exhibition opportunities. I wish I had a nickel for every time a political appointee tried to convince me that his office was the equivalent of public display, but based on what I’ve experienced, I’ll never bite on that argument. The NHC/NHHC website has done wonders for our traveling exhibit program, but it still averages only 6 exhibits a year. We continue to hope for a bigger, accessible gallery in a more prominent area, but until that happens, we must content ourselves with pushing the traveling exhibits.

  • Navy Art Staff

    Regarding destruction of art, it’s not just a problem of one unenlightened individual associated with a particular group, this is a general problem. Usually it’s the expense of conservation/upkeep/moving that gets the mural destroyed more than the subject matter. There’s a case that came to my attention this week and I’m advocating that if those who are interested in seeing it saved can come up with the funds for it, it should be given to the local community. That’s what happened to a mural at Bremerton a few years ago. Anything you do with an extremely large painting gets you into serious expense.

  • I think you forgot about the third “victim”..How about the artist who (it looks to me like) risked his own skin to paint (beautifully) in war zones for the government, and (probably) made the same wage that any other enlisted person made, and turned over all of his detailed documentation to the government, only to hear later that some uneducated person offered it at a Goodwill store or the like.
    I really enjoyed seeing glimpses of this artwork. I hope to hear about an exhibit in my area (San Diego) and to see a “collection” some day!

  • Keelhauler 43

    Another mural (not even technically owned by the Navy) I fear may be on the chopping block is that in the lobby of Building 1 in Treasure Island. The lobby used to be a museum with a ton of great exhibits. Since the city of San Francisco has reacquired the island the museum has all but vanished, city interests and those connected to city interests have been dying to get their claws on the building. It’s very sad to see but so goes life I guess.

  • Flapper

    Re Building 1 at Treasue Island: I went through USN ET’A’ School in 1962-63 and remember well the mural you speak of. It would be tragic to lose it.
    Of course, I remember even more vividly how frikking cold it was on a winter night, standing Fire Watch in one of the barracks areas when a frigid wind was blowing through the Golden Gate!

  • Navy Art Staff

    The mural in Bldg 1 at Treasure Island is supposed to convey to the city of San Francisco with the base. We know of no plans to demolish the building or the mural. I will add that the mural is so big, that I would be unable to find another home for it, so this appears to be the optimal solution.

  • 67Rally

    A few years ago, I was watching for specific items pertaining to my ship (CG-49) and noticed a painting that had previously been hanging in the wardroom (since the ship’s commissioning). The painting was an original of the CL-64 USS Vincennes in heavy seas and was purported to have been donated to the ship by the USS Vincennes Association. The painting was from a well-known WWII artist.

    It was surprising to see the painting on the auction site considering that the CG-49 was still in commission. I did attempt to bid on the painting , not wanting to see it fall into the collection of a private owner (but rather to an organization such as the Indiana Military Museum or the NHC). At that time, I was not in a position to bid very much, so the painting did, in fact, end up into private hands.

    I am still kicking myself for not notifying anyone (who could take action) of this painting being on the auction block.

  • Navy Art Staff

    I’m sure yours isn’t the only ship that has had this problem. We would have had to prove it was Navy property. The way to do that is to document it asap. Current ships, take note. Take snapshots for identification, mark the back of the painting (not on the canvas, please) as property of the Navy or USS Whatever. You can send a copy of your documentation to Navy Art if you like and we’ll take note when the ship decommissions. The exception to this is the sponsor’s gift. Often the sponsor gives a painting and by law when the ship decommissions, they can select one of their gifts to have back as a momento. Sometimes, it’s the painting they gave that they want back. In that case, we have no choice.

  • Kristy Hoffman

    Any idea on how many mis-appropriated pieces of Navy art exists?

  • Navy Art Staff

    Blanket number is about 260, though I will say that each one has a story behind it. Usually they have vanished from ships, meaning that we knew that the ship had a painting on board and did not turn it in when it decommissioned. Nowadays, Navy Art will not lend originals to ships, though sponsors still give them as gifts, sailors still buy paintings to decorate the wardrooms, and private individuals still give them directly to ships. If we know about it, we try to track it. If not, for now it is out of our hands.

  • Kristy Hoffman

    Have you ever thought about issuing BOLOS (Be On the Look Out Out) for the paintings. They would make great blog posts in my humble opinion.

  • Lynn Zuccarelli Austin

    The Old Salt was painted by my uncle, Frank Zuccarelli. (Actually, my father’s uncle). I have one or two framed copies on linen, and have always been interested in knowing what happened to the original. I’m thrilled that it’s been found! I’d love to know (1) who had it and (2) where it is residing now (on display or in storage). I’m going to send Uncle Frank a print out of this web posting. He’ll be amazed! Thank you for tracking down the Old Salt. Best Regards—

  • Mr. Frank Zuccarelli was my Illustration instructor at the Nweark School of Fine Industrial Arts, He is a great man and Artist


  • D.J Descant MCPO, USN (Ret.)

    I have kept a reproduction of the Old Salt in my office for years. So pleased to know you recovered the original. Bullfeathers to the so called “oh It was a gift from my staff”. Can I send a picture of mine…

  • A. J Atkins

    We have a print of the Old Salt of the 6th Fleet. After having on-line that you talked about in this article we couldn’t help that our poster size print and prints for sale on-line have the coffee cup in his right hand, yet the original shown in thia article shows the coffee cup in his left hand, which is correct? Doesn’t that make all of the reprints incorrect?

  • Don Choquette

    In the original painting, he has the cup in his RIGHT hand!

  • Gin

    We have a poster of the old salt of the sixth fleet . It had been in my uncle’s living room since I was a small child . My family was trying to find out what the value of this poster is today and yes his cup is in his right had