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Follow Large Paintings, They are Harder to Hide

It was in 2012, after I went on a day trip to the Catskills to see a friend’s prospective country home, that I began to inquire about the theft of treasures from the now decaying, but still magnificent “Hathaway” in the Catskill Mountains. In the mid to late 1980’s Skinners Auctioneers of Bolton, Massachusetts had done an appraisal of the home’s collection of furnishings designed by famed turn of the century American Craftsman, Gustav Stickley (1858-1942). The owners of “Hathaway” - the Showers family - were literally stripped of their belongings soon after the appraisal. (*See AAD Part I Hathaway Heist). Because of the chronological proximity of the theft to the appraisal and a subsequent Skinners auction consignment that got canceled, the family was convinced that somebody at Skinners had to be involved in their misfortune. A search carried out for the Stickley furniture, throughout most of 2012, entailed a labor-intensive examination of dozens of Skinners’ Arts and Crafts auction catalog. After that, the search led us to do the same for Sothebys and Christies, yet none of these leads bore out their hunches and as there was no evidence, the matter, sadly, was dropped. Even the hunt for a unique and rare (i.e., not hard to miss) Gustav Stickley Morris Spindle chair adorned with twenty-two spindles on each side, seemed to have unbelievably vanished into thin air.

When I picked up the trail, I didn’t let the Stickley stonewall kill it, I refocused on the art, specifically the very large painting by Frans Huard, Devotion of Mademoiselle De Sombreuil. This rare picture turned up not just once, but twice. Although Skinners were the original suspects, it was not at the Massachusetts auction where the Huard was spotted. An entry, first in a catalogue for a paintings auction at Freemans Auctioneers of Philadelphia on October 7, 1995, showed a painting by the same artist (“Frans Huard”), title (“Devotion of Mademoiselle De Sombreuil”) with identical dimensions (39 by 59 inches). A further twist in the mystery occurred more than a decade later when the picture reappeared for sale Crosskeys Antiques, an antiques dealer in Baltimore, MD.

H Heist 2

In short, now we could infer that the thieves did not, head Northeast, from the Catskills with the haul, they cleverly headed southwest, in the opposite direction, to Philadelphia, PA. In retrospect the thieves knew Boston was dangerous for them and went on the presumption that dealers and auctioneers in the mid-Atlantic region would be less likely to know the fact that the painting was stolen - or would be ignorant as to its recent tainted history, the “fence” began on the wrong side of the fence, so to speak, and initially worked like a charm. Crosskeys innocence was clearly in evidence as they even posted a photo of the Huard, retaining its original frame, on their website - hardly a move they would have made had they had any reservations about the picture or its clear title.?

H Heist 3

Despite the fact that the Frans Huard painting was hotter than a barnfire, the dealers could state they bought it in good faith at auction, assured of its legitimate provenance in 1995. Freemans, however, was a different story, and to date either cannot, or will not offer a similar defence.
Asked for a comment just this week, November 2014, COO, Hanna Dougher, stated that they wished to see the article before making any on the record comment, and perhaps ominously, and parenthetically, alluded to the increasing transparency in the art market as a result of the “information age” Coupled with the Art Loss Register. Perhaps an innocuous aside, re: the changing dynamics of art research, or then again, perhaps not.

H Heist 4

When I pressed Dougher, asking her if law enforcement had at any time contacted them about the Huard, she answered, “No.” This one-word denial was perhaps the most damning answer she could have given, as my question was a loaded one - and I knew the answer. They (the law) had indeed contact Freemans and I had done the homework and had the proof. I started in June 2012 in the quest to uncover what had actually happened to the contents of Hathaway House, and by 2014 I had done a great deal of digging. Perhaps it could be construed as playing with a marked deck, to have asked a question to which I knew the answer, yet my aim was to ascertain Dougher and her colleagues’ integrity (or lack thereof) from the outset.

By late summer 2012, when I began to unearth and then follow the trail of the stolen painting, I felt I had enough evidence to bring the story to light and my sole purpose was to fix at least one of the wrongs done to the Showers family. I was not yet at the stage where I was certain who, or what institution was wholly or partly responsible for the felony, but it was clear that a crime had been committed and as art dealers (confession: I am one) are beginning to be regarded on a par with ambulance-chasing attorneys and twisted mortgage lenders. I was also motivated by a desire to shine a light in the dark corners of the sometimes Byzantine workings and deliberate opacity of the auction world. So to belabor the metaphor, I wanted to see what creatures might scurry, as they would in a long un-used attic, if I “pulled the blinds” so to speak, and exposed as much as I was able.

In pursuit of this aim, I called Betsy Showers Mann, the daughter of the late Annabeth Showers, the original victim of this crime and asked her to look through her extensive files. I specifically asked her to look for a photocopy of the settlement check her mother had received from her insurance company for what was taken in the robbery. Betsy Mann found the check, and I got a punch in the gut. The late Mrs. Showers received approximately 15 cents on the dollar for a million dollar heist. It was not enough to replace the losses, (even if they could be replaced, as so many of her treasures were “one-offs”).

H Heist 5New Hampshire Insurance Company, claim no. 056190, check no. 00698030

These were the numbers I needed to give me a point of reference, and perhaps leverage on behalf of the Showers’ with the Insurance Company of New Hampshire (now called Chartis, and a subsidiary of AIG). The data on the original check was enough to convince AIG of the fact that they too had both a lot to either win or to lose - both from a monetary and/or from a public relations perspective, in the swift and fair resolution of this sad saga. By now I knew the family had not only saved a copy of the check, they had meticulously also filed photos, with sizes and descriptions of everything that had been stolen. Thus, once I found the Huard painting, I was gratified as this was no longer a case of chasing ether in the mist. There was material evidence and one whose trail implied a story to tell.

Therefore, now armed with the data supplied by the Showers family I reached out to the investigative arm of the insurance company. Through personal contacts I knew in the industry, within a week, I was able to speak to someone in a position of authority, the salvage investigator for AIG/Chartis. The investigator then used a *.pdf file I gave him of the original cancelled check, complete with the correct and original file numbers, and was finally able to activate the long dormant Hathaway Heist file.

H Heist 6

It went places, fast. First, straight to the New York States Police Department. AIG, now working with the “Staties” made an impressively swift start. (Amazing what putting big money corporations and law enforcement together can do for the “little guys”).

And although the New York State police do not have jurisdiction in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it soon became clear that someone had facilitated and initiated a tough look into Freemans auctioneers in hopes of discovering who had consigned the painting by Frans Huard, “Devotion of Madamoiselle De Sombreuil," when it sold there at the auction in 1995.

H Heist 7

Currently, the case may hinge on the seller at Freemans of Philadelphia of the Huard. As it is yet not known how innocent or guilty the consignor is, or was, in observance of legal niceties, we shall heretofore call him a “person of interest”. I pointedly will refer to him as, “Richard Zimms.” It is not his real name. I and all involved law enforcement do know his real name, but I chose this alias for a reason. I hope to have hit close enough to home to alert Freemans to the fact that this article, our investigation, and the involvement of law enforcement is neither a bluff, nor a fishing expedition.

According to sources, once the “Staties” started trying to get a hold of “Richard Zimms,” this person of interest developed a sudden aversion to cold winters in Honesdale, PA, and promptly moved six-hundred miles straight south to the Carolinas. At that point, the investigation hit a speed bump as a result of our “person of interest” crossing so many state lines. After clearing that particular impediment, it was not long until jurisdiction shifted to the FBI

Yet because the statute of limitations on theft had expired, the last that I heard of the matter is that the FBI had shelved the case.

H Heist 8

However, I remain convinced that the trail has not gone cold. With the correct publicity, pressure put on law enforcement, I remain convinced that eventually all of the jigsaw puzzle pieces will be found, and with luck, will fit into a clear picture of what may have been, and still may be happening in the seemingly bucolic and serene peaks and valleys of the Catskills.

I hesitate to conjecture, as a rule I realize that it is a bad idea for a journalist attempting to be taken seriously with a story that reads like a movie plot. Yet several facts remain that have not only convinced me, but have convinced an increasing number of people that something is rotten was rotten in the heart of the Hudson River Valley. First, it is a fact that a number of art and antique thefts occurred in and around Woodstock, New York in the past few decades, all unsolved and all eerily similar to the Hathaway affair. During the course of those conversations one of the investigators remarked that one of Richard Zimms' associates committed suicide. In the context of investigating a ring that pulled off a number of these moving van scores, that was a little too neat for my liking, a potential witness to a multitude of thefts, this loose end revealed, and he conveniently “offs” himself.

Another annoying aspect of this story brings me back to the question I posed to Freemans: Has law enforcement been in touch with Freemans regarding this painting, or any of the stolen Stickley furniture taken in the same heist?

"No"

They wanted to sweep this under rug, and brush off an inconvenient question. This in turn invites the question of auction house due diligence, a moral quality absent to their conduct in this narrative. In an earlier statement, Freemans cited cooperation of the Art Loss Register, a nebulous entity that lacks law enforcement standing, and worse yet has cross ownership of the auction houses, and that is post antitrust. Furthermore these guys were no where to be found on this story, or other thefts known to have involved the auction houses. My own historic issue with Art Loss Register is that they have zero transparency regarding the theft database and their own actions do nothing to ameliorate concerns regarding conflict of interest, especially when it comes to allegations that auction houses acted as swag supermarkets. I believe the conflict of interest is a direct impediment towards resolution or recovery of these stolen works of art. Example, one year ago, I wrote about the BYU case of stolen art where in 1988 the museum listed one hundred of the 1200 known paintings stolen:

A Childe Hassam painting complete with Brigham Young University provenance via the Weir family to whom the work was inscribed, passed through a Shannon’s Auction sale in October of 2004. Also noted was a large Ernest Blumenshein painting in a Sotheby’s Arcade sale in April 1995, and a John Frederic Kensett painting that sold at Christies in 1989,

H Heist 9Childe Hassam stolen from BYU, listed on Art Loss Register, Never Returned to Lawful Owner (BYU)

H Heist 10John F. Kensett (1816-1872), Coast of Newport, Stolen from BYU ?Listed on Art Loss Register, Later sold at Auction, Never recovered

Despite this publicity, and that these paintings listed were on the Art Loss Register, nothing was ever done to help BYU. Why? They sold at auction houses, two of whom partially owned the Art Loss Register.

So the Hathaway Heist, where a million dollar worth of Gustav Stickley furniture got stolen, just one painting, the sole clue, emerged to this heist, yet the follow up is so weak, that the painting found is not returned to the lawful owners. Meanwhile the COO of an auction house gives misleading answers to questions on this story, gives nebulous credit to an even more nebulous Art Loss Register, and the FBI pretty much leave the person of interest alone to enjoy the warmer climate of the Carolinas. Somehow cautionary theme of this story is that conflict of interest became obstruction of justice, and in a story loaded with too many coincidences, law enforcement should recall Richard Zimms dead friend, and this parting thought:

“Canaries like to sing, They don’t try to fly.”

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You may also like to read:

* The Rabbi Jewelry Score :: Inside The Mind Of A Professional Jewelry Thief

* Inside The Mind Of A Professional Jewelry Thief :: A Midtown Jewelry Score

* Bad Guys Bedevil The Art Market

* Hathaway Heist - pt 1

* Hathaway Heist :: Update

About the Author

Robert Alexander Boyle

Robert Alexander Boyle

 Alexander Boyle is a graduate of Trinity College, Hartford, CT where he majored in History. Prior to graduation he co-authored the seminal book Acid Rain in 1983. Alex has worked for the Metropo...