Fifty-year-old art crime solved by local sleuths, as two portraits stolen in 1972 are returned

In February 1972, a fire raged at the Veterans Foreign Wars building in New Paltz, New York. With emergency services distracted, a robbery occurred at the town’s historic district of Huguenot Street. Dozens of objects were stolen, including a pair of portraits by the prominent itinerant folk artist Ammi Phillips (1788-1865) depicting local residents Dirck D. Wynkoop (1738-1827) and his wife Annatje Erlinge (1748-1827). Exactly fifty years later, the portraits were rediscovered, and were put back on display at the Historic Huguenot Street.

Ammi Phillips was a self-taught artist, who had a long career working in the Hudson Valley, Massachusetts and Connecticut areas, where he depicted sitters from wealthy and significant families. The Wynkoop pair, painted likely around 1821, is probably one of the artist’s earliest works. The rediscovery of the portraits occurred when two New Paltz locals who worked in the historic sector set about searching for them in 2020. Carol Johnson, a librarian at the Elting Memorial Library in New Paltz, joined forces with the curator of the Historic Huguenot Street, Josephine Bloodgood, to work on an exhibition about New Paltz resident Jacob Wynkoop, a carpenter who was one of the first Black men in the community to vote and who had fought in the American Civil War. Jacob’s father had been enslaved by Dirck Wynkoop. Johnson and Bloodgood had only photos of the Phillips portraits from the 1970s to go on, but miraculously only a few months after they started searching for the paintings a breakthrough emerged. In June 2020, the pair came across an online catalogue of the works by Ammi Phillips, which included the stolen portraits, although with no sitter identification. According to the catalogue, the “unidentified pair” had been sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2005. Bloodgood commented on her “shock” that “they were out there in plain sight”.

The pair contacted the FBI, who subpoenaed Sotheby’s for the name of the buyer, who agreed to return the paintings to the historical society. Bloodgood emphasised the importance of these portraits for the New Paltz community, and their significance in telling the story of slavery in this town: “it’s so rare to have portraits of individuals from this early period, especially for New Paltz […] We’re so pleased to have the Wynkoop portraits back in the collection, where they can again be interpreted to tell a full story of our community and how it relates to the rich and complicated history of our country”.

On the discovery that these paintings were actually sold at auction, Johnson commented, “we could not understand why Sotheby’s did not do their due diligence and look up these paintings”. In response, Sotheby’s have told Artnet News that, “Sotheby’s catalogue for this sale was checked against the Art Loss Register”, and that “had the paintings been registered there, they would have been quickly identified as having been stolen.” The Chair of the Historic Huguenot Street, Mary Etta Schneider, said in a statement, “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. Carol Johnson and Josephine Bloodgood’s work laid the groundwork for this significant recovery. It really was an amazing collaboration of all involved.”

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