Two Sleuths From a Small-Town Historical Society Tracked Down Two Paintings Stolen 50 Years Ago. Now, They’re Going Back on View
Sotheby's sold the stolen works at auction in 2005.
Exactly 50 years and a day after thieves pillaged Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, New York, the FBI returned a pair of historic paintings to the Upstate New York institution, where they will finally be unveiled this weekend.
The 1820s canvases depict elderly New Paltz residents Dirck D. Wynkoop (1738–1827), a prominent local wheat farm owner, and his wife Annatje Eltinge (1748–1827). They are the work of itinerant folk artist Ammi Phillips, a likely self-taught portraitist who was active from the 1810s to the early 1860s and painted prolifically across Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York.
“It’s so rare to have portraits of individuals from this early period, especially for New Paltz,” Josephine Bloodgood, the historical society’s director of curatorial and preservation affairs, said in a statement. “We’re so pleased to have the Wynkoop portraits back in the collection, where they can again be interpreted to tell a fuller story of our community and how it relates to the rich and complicated history of our country.”
The paintings went missing on February 16, 1972, during a fire at a Veterans of Foreign Wars building in town. Thieves took advantage of the commotion (or, some speculated, started it intentionally) to steal a cache of historic objects, thought at the time to value $30,000, from the historical society’s 1799 House.
Many of the stolen artifacts—which included silver, ceramics, a prayer book, a powder horn, guns, and swords—turned up weeks later at a Manhattan thrift shop, but the paintings, donated to the society in December 1971 by Marie Wiersum, disappeared without a trace.
Then, in 2020, Bloodgood and historical society trustee Carol Johnson began working on an exhibition about Civil War veteran Jacob Wynkoop, whose father was enslaved by the man in one of the missing portraits. It inspired the pair to try to track it down.
After the burglary, the historical society had distributed a black-and-white postcard of the paintings which Bloodgood and Johnson used to compare to images in an online catalogue of artist Ammi Phillips’s work.
They spotted the works, in a listing that said the sitters were unidentified. They had sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2005. Bloodgood acquired the catalogue for the sale on eBay and confirmed it.
Ammi’s work has sold at auction for as much as $3.9 million, a record set this January at Christie’s New York, according to the Artnet Price Database. The pair of stolen canvases fetched just $13,200.
The historical society went to the FBI’s New York art crime team with what they had learned. The authorities subpoenaed Sotheby’s for the name of the buyer and tracked the paintings to the home of a collector in another state. The owner, who was unaware they had been stolen, agreed to return the paintings to New Paltz.
“We are extremely grateful to the FBI for their important work to locate the paintings and to the collector who so willingly returned them to us,” Mary Etta Schneider, the chair of the society’s board of trustees, said in a statement.
How the stolen paintings managed to go up for sale at a leading auction house remains an open question. If specialists looked at the backs of the works they would have seen inscriptions identifying the sitters—which would have made it easy to discover that the pieces had been stolen.
“We could not understand why Sotheby’s did not do their due diligence and look up these paintings,” Johnson told the New York Times.
“Sotheby’s catalogue for this sale was checked against the Art Loss Register,” a Sotheby’s representative told Artnet News in an email. “Had the paintings been registered there, they would have been quickly identified as having been stolen.”
The paintings are going back on view at the historical society this weekend, and Johnson and Bloodgood will give a presentation about their efforts to secure their return.
Tickets are $15, and the proceeds will help fund a professional cleaning and restoration of the works, which have suffered scratches and surface abrasions in the intervening decades. The portrait of Annatie also has damage to the support of the canvas, which needs to be repaired.
“A Tale of Two Paintings: Missing Portraits Returned to Historic Huguenot Street” will take place at Historic Huguenot Street, 81 Huguenot Street, New Paltz, New York, on June 26, 2022, 2 p.m.–3:30 p.m.
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.