Curator finds stolen artwork among pieces donated to museum

A rare piece of Baroque art. An international mystery. A determined art expert.

And finally, after almost 60 years, a resolution to a flight first discovered in 1965 – in Munich.

When a year-end gift to the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts last winter included a rare Baroque drawing by Italian artist Giovanni Battista Salvi — better known as Sassoferatto — museum staff were thrilled.

“How delightful that Hagerstown now has a Sassoferrato to call its own!” the museum’s executive director, Sarah Hall, gushed in a column for The Herald-Mail.

This was no small distinction – most of Sassoferrato’s known drawings are in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, one of Queen Elizabeth II’s many homes in Britain.

The drawing, “Madonna and Child (circa 1650)”, was part of a collection donated to the museum by John and Sylvie O’Brien. They had bought the work from a French collector in 1970.

The piece is a study for Sassoferrato oil paintings completed later, and originally included a study of a hand in the upper right corner.

A surprising discovery

Once the acquisition was made, Daniel Fulco, curator of the Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Museum, set out to find the work.

“The design came into the collection (during) the holidays. And often we do a preliminary check, we do some background research on the piece,” Fulco told the Herald-Mail. “But later, after he joins, we’ll go deeper often, especially if we’re planning on doing a feature film on it or something.”

Fulco, a soft-spoken man who clearly knows his stuff, found a catalog published by French scholar François Lepinay in 2017 for a special exhibition of works by Sassoferrato, mostly from the Windsor collection.

Sassoferrato, depicted in this self-portrait, was inspired by Renaissance works. "Self-Portrait," vs.  1650. Oil on canvas, Uffizi Gallery, Collection of Self-Portraits, Florence.

“And of course there’s the drawing shown in one of his essays. And I said, ‘Wow, that looks a lot like the drawing that was given by John and Sylvie O’Brien,'” Fulco said. .

“So I took the book and went down to storage. Lo and behold, when I put them together, I said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s almost a mirror image.

“And that’s when I had a little drop in my stomach, because I was kind of like, ‘oh no,’ because the legend book said ‘missing/stolen, since 1965, Munich Graphic Collection, Germany.'”

And that’s when Fulco knew he had to talk to his colleagues about the next steps.

“But at the same time, of course, we had just accessed it very recently. It was also disappointing, because it would have been a major acquisition for the museum,” he said.

“But we are now in an era of transparency. And so it is the duty of the museum to do their due diligence and return it to its rightful owner.”

He also spoke with donors, who hadn’t realized he had been stolen.

“John O’Brien had acquired it in 1970,” he said, “and with that you get into a lot of unknowns, because you can’t know exactly where it was between 1965 and 1970.

Museum collections were not documented then as they are now, he added, and stolen works were harder to trace.

This painting from Sassoferrato's workshop is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and appears to be based on the drawing that was in the WCFMA collection.  Madonna and Child, c.  1650-1700.

In fact, the initial discovery of the flight in 1965 was a bit of a fluke.

A student doing research at the Graphic Collection in Munich discovered on August 13, 1965 that the design had been torn from its base and stolen. The museum contacted the Munich police, but the Munich prosecutor’s office reported that the investigation was closed at the end of the week, with authorities concluding that all leads had been exhausted and that the thief had not could be identified.

In other words, no one knew when the coin was stolen, or by whom.

Fulco, Hull and Collections Registrar Sarah Wolfe, compared the drawing with the missing work depicted in the catalog and concluded that most matched “line for line” – although some edits were made to the drawing, presumably to make it more easy. for the thief to sell.

The Sassoferrato gift:What’s the perfect gift for an art museum? A rare Baroque design

Don’t miss:While you enjoy ‘the lure of the Near East’, revel in WCFMA’s complimentary display

Fulco said the edit could have been done with a light eraser, tool, or soft solution, but at the top right of the sheet, a study of hands was “almost erased into oblivion.” And the original inventory number of the drawing had also been erased.

The damage “undermines the integrity of the artist’s technique,” Fulco said. “It diminishes its value, that is, its monetary value. And it spoils for us, as viewers, the artist’s original intentions, which were to really show the contrast between the shadows and the reflections of the draperies of the Virgin and Child, and also their facial details, because the outlines of Sassoferrato are so clear… they are very linear, very sharp, they are as rounded — it depends on which part of the figure — as when this nobody did this, to disguise it as a black market sale, they totally diminished the design.”

Nevertheless, although Fulco could not comment on its actual value, it is still rare and therefore still valuable.

A mystery partly solved

The museum contacted the FBI for advice on the procedure and contacted the museum in Germany. And soon, the coin will be returned.

“Our museum greatly appreciates the care taken in design by the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in its acquisition,” Michael Hering, director of the State Graphic Collection in Munich, said in a statement. “This attention made it possible to identify the sheet as the one that had been stolen from the funds of the Graphische Sammlung in 1965 and which we have sorely missed since.

Daniel Fulco, curator of Agnita M. Stine Schreiber at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, discusses Sassoferrato's Madonna and Child.  Fulco's research on the coin led him to discover that it had been stolen from a collection in Munich in 1965.

Museum officials believed the work was lost forever.

“It is very happy and encouraging that an exchange between museums from different continents can be carried out in such a collegial way,” said Herring.

But you still have a chance to see the play before it goes home; it is on display at the museum until August.

“While I will certainly feel a sense of loss when we pack the drawing to send it back to Munich, I am proud of the curatorial research that allowed us to send this drawing home, and I appreciate the time we have had to enjoy this beautiful first-hand drawing,” Hall said.

But while this particular lost art has been recovered, the Munich police might have been right about one thing: the mystery of who took it, and when, remains – perhaps forever.

Comments are closed.