Two detectives from a small-town historical society have found two paintings stolen 50 years ago. Now they come back in sight

Exactly 50 years and one day after the looting of thieves Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, New York, the FBI has 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 Phillipsa probably self-taught portrait painter who was active from the 1810s to the early 1860s and painted prolifically in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York.

“It is so rare to have portraits of individuals from this early period, especially for New Paltz,” Josephine Bloodgood, director of conservation and preservation affairs for the historical society, said in a statement. statement. “We are thrilled to have Wynkoop’s portraits back in the collection, where they can once again be interpreted to tell a fuller story of our community and how it relates to our country’s rich and complicated history.”

The paintings disappeared on February 16, 1972, during a fire at a Veterans of Foreign Wars building in town. The thieves took advantage of the commotion (or, some say, intentionally started it) to steal a cache of historical artifacts, estimated at the time at $30,000, from the historical society‘s 1799 house.

A postcard of Ammi Phillips’ stolen paintings of New Paltz couple Annatje Eltinge and Dirck D. Wynkoop distributed by the Historic Huguenot Street Historical Society in New Paltz, New York, after they were stolen in 1972. Photo courtesy from Historic Huguenot Street, New Paltz.

Many of the stolen artifacts – which included cash, ceramics, a prayer book, a powder horn, guns and swords – turned up weeks later at a Manhattan thrift store, but the paintings, given to the company in December 1971 by Marie Wiersum, who disappeared without a trace.

Then, in 2020, Bloodgood and historical society trustee Carol Johnson began work on an exhibit about Civil War veteran Jacob Wynkoop, whose father was enslaved by the man in one of the missing portraits. . This inspired the pair to try to find him.

After the burglary, the historical society had distributed a black-and-white postcard of the paintings that Bloodgood and Johnson were using to compare to images in an online catalog of artist Ammi Phillips’ work.

They located the works, in a list indicating that the models were not identified. They had sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2005. Bloodgood acquired the catalog for sale on eBay and confirmed it.

Ammi’s work sold at auction for no less than $3.9 million, a record set in January at Christie’s New York, according to the Artnet Price Database. The pair of stolen canvases brought in just $13,200.

The historical society went to the FBI art crime team in New York with what they had learned. Authorities subpoenaed Sotheby’s for the buyer’s name and tracked the paintings to a collector’s home in another state. The owner, unaware that they had been stolen, agreed to return the paintings to New Paltz.

“We are extremely grateful to the FBI for their important work in locating the paintings and to the collector who so willingly returned them to us,” said Mary Etta Schneider, chair of the company’s board of directors, in a statement.

How the stolen paintings managed to come up for sale at a major auction house remains an open question. If specialists looked on the back of the works, they would have seen inscriptions identifying the models, which would have made it easy to discover that the pieces had been stolen.

“We couldn’t understand why Sotheby’s hadn’t done their due diligence and researched these paintings,” Johnson told the New York Times.

“The Sotheby’s catalog for this sale has been compared to the Art Loss Register,” a Sotheby’s representative told Artnet News in an email. “If the paintings had been registered there, they would have been quickly identified as having been stolen.”

The paintings are returning to the historical society this weekend, and Johnson and Bloodgood will give a presentation on 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 over the decades since. Annatie’s portrait also shows damage to the canvas support, which needs to be repaired.

“A Tale of Two Paintings: Missing Portraits Returned to Historic Huguenot Street” will be held at Historic Huguenot Street, 81 Huguenot Street, New Paltz, New York on June 26, 2022, from 2-3:30 p.m.

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