A fine art auctioneer’s instincts, an international database of stolen and missing artworks and a quick response by the Houston Police Department all meshed recently, resulting in the recovery of an Andrew Wyeth watercolor on paper titled “A Bridge, Race Gate (Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania)” that had been stolen from a private collection here nearly eight years ago.
When the painting, a view of the upper gates of the millrace on the Wyeths’ property in Chadds Ford, was brought into Simpson Galleries this past April by a gentleman seeking to sell it, auction house owner Ray Simpson Jr became instantly suspicious. “He just wanted to sell me the painting and asked me to make him an offer,” recalled Simpson. “I sensed immediately that there was an issue – I didn’t know if it was a condition issue -so I convinced him to leave it with me for further review to determine its value.”
Simpson said his gallery has handled Wyeth works in the past, and the artist’s work is well known to collectors and scholars alike, so as he began his due diligence after the gentleman left and he had secured the painting in his vault, he was surprised to find that most of his usual sources were surfacing no issues with the painting or its provenance.
“I finally contacted a database company in NY and they called back in a matter of minutes with the information that the painting was an exact match with one in their database of stolen and missing artwork,” said Simpson..
After spending less than a year in a private Houston collection, the Wyeth had been taken from its owner’s home during a burglary in December 2000 while its owner was away on vacation. The painting, one of 22 that were reported stolen in the break-in, is the only one of the 22 paintings reported stolen in 2000 to have resurfaced so far.
In a fortuitous twist that he describes as “pure luck,” Attorney Christopher Marinello, acting on behalf of the insurer and working through Crimestoppers, was able to reach the original Houston Police Department detective who had investigated the theft nearly eight years earlier. Detective Richard Anderson and eight undercover officers converged at Simpson’s Galleries, where they successfully apprehended the painting’s would-be seller and took possession of the stolen artwork. “We set up in the parking lot, and I was already inside,” said Anderson, a 25-year veteran of the Houston Police Department. “We were hoping maybe that he had more paintings.”
The Wyeth spent the next week in the police department’s stolen property room while the original owner was contacted. Although the suspicious consignor was booked on some outstanding traffic warrants, he was not charged with stealing the painting, which, according to Anderson, he claimed he had purchased from another individual, now deceased.
The painting’s previous owner decided to retain the original insurance settlement of $155,500, thus the painting, now temporarily the property of the insurer, Nationwide Insurance Company, will be sold at Christie’s this December.
Simpson said he is pleased to have sounded the alert that led to the painting’s recovery. “We did the responsible thing, not the greedy thing, and we’re proud of that,” he said.