Apr 12

“Misappropriated” Navy Art

Monday, April 12, 2010 1:00 AM

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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.