The N.C. Wyeth Caper, widely regarded as Maine’s most significant fine art theft, is one step closer to reaching its conclusion, after an 18-month, nationwide investigation.
A pair of historically significant Wyeth paintings, speculated to be worth about $500,000 each, were recovered thanks to the combined efforts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Portland Police Department, the U.S. Attorney’s offices and the Beverly Hill Police Department.
The paintings, titled, “The Encounter on Freshwater Cliff,” and “Go Dutton and That Right Speedily,” were recovered in the Greater Boston area, after a third-party, anonymous tipper surrendered them to retired FBI agent Jim Siracusa. This tip led to the light at the end of the tunnel for an investigation that originally started in June 2013, when the Portland Police asked for FBI assistance in solving a theft of six Wyeth works from the home of landlord Joseph Soley.
“The owner is incredibly relieved to have these irreplaceable works returned to his family. Now that the ordeal is nearly over, he’s entrusted the museum to share them with the public,” announced Portland Museum of Art Director Mark Bessire. “Art heists hold a certain romantic allure, yet the reality is that many pieces of art are extremely fragile, and in the wrong hands, they could be lost forever.”
Thankfully, all six of the works didn’t sustain any damage and were found in good condition, in their original frames and cardboard boxes. The Portland Museum of Art is temporarily hosting the paintings, in an exhibition titled The Great N.C. Wyeth Caper: Paintings by America’s Storyteller, so the public can enjoy them until Jan. 3.
"The owner is incredibly relieved to have these irreplaceable works returned to his family," said Bessire. "Now that the ordeal is nearly over, he's entrusted the museum to share them with the public."
During a press conference at the Portland Museum of Art last Thursday, FBI officials said that although all six of the paintings are now safe and three people have been arrested for their involvement in the theft, the investigation is not over. No reward money has been issued (the FBI offered a $20,000 reward for information back in August) and no more arrests have been made, and because of the ongoing nature of the case, FBI officials declined to comment on several questions.
So far these unanswered questions remain: How much were the paintings selling for in the pawn shop? Why can’t museum directors comment on how much valuable paintings are worth? Is the gentlemen that came forward, and tipped the FBI in Boston, involved in the ongoing investigation? What exactly was the route the paintings took to California? Did the paintings change hands other times along the way? What are the FBI investigators looking for in the ongoing investigation? How exactly did the burglar break into Soley’s home if there were no signs of forced entry found?
For now this information is unavailable to the public but here’s what we do know about the investigation and its history. Joseph Soley, a prominent landlord in Portland (he owns the People’s United Bank building downtown), got to know Andrew Wyeth, one of the best known American artists of the 20th century, while he lived nearby in Camden. Over the decades of their friendship, Soley collected six works of N.C. Wyeth (Andrew’s father) and stored them in an unoccupied apartment at 18 Monument Square. Then on May 7, 2013, a Soley family member discovered the works were missing and called the Portland Police to respond to what they thought was an average burglary. Except it wasn’t an average burglary; there were no signs of forced entry and what vanished were six incredibly important pieces to America’s artistic past.
According to the Portland Press Herald, the collection was worth “tens of millions of dollars.” The case required FBI assistance after the local police speculated that these valuable works had probably crossed state lines in attempts to be sold. The trail of evidence led to a pawnshop in Beverly Hills, Calif. , where the aspiring Los Angeles rapper Oscar Roberts took four of the paintings to secure a $100,000 loan. The owner of the “Dina Collection” pawn shop, Yossi Dina, said that she was suspicious of the art’s legality and contacted the FBI’s special art crime team, who came and recovered the four works.
Roberts is now sentenced to 20 months in federal prison for pledging stolen property.
Other people were implicated in the criminal case, too, such as Dean Coroniti of North Hollywood and Lawrence Estrella of New Hampshire, both of whom are being prosecuted for possessing and transporting stolen property, authorities said.
The two paintings that were most recently recovered, “The Encounter on Freshwater Cliff,” and “Go Dutton and That Right Speedily,” are striking paintings. The first one features a dapper warrior performing a merciless execution on a slain foe. The second one depicts, with vivid reds and soft brown tones, several smug-looking men in medieval attire peering out of a doorway. Soley, the Portland police and the art community are extremely grateful that these works have made it back to their home state.
“It’s a big deal to recover six pieces like this,” said Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck. “It’s a big deal for the art community and the attorney’s officers and the investigators involved.”
“We’re so fortunate to have law enforcement with us today,” said PMA’s Bessire. “These paintings are extremely valuable treasures and works of culture. Some of our favorite paintings are by N.C. Wyeth. His tradition in Maine really tells the great story our state has played in American art history.”
N.C. Wyeth, born in Needham in 1882, illustrated over 112 books (Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, among others) in his lifetime. He prided himself on his realism, in a time where the exciting emergent technology of photography was competing with his craft. Wyeth also painted historical scenes, landscapes and portraits, but understood the difference in illustrated drawings and vibrant oil paintings.
"Painting and illustration cannot be mixed,” said Wyeth in 1908. “One cannot merge from one into the other."
Both N.C. Wyeth and his son Andrew Wyeth had strong ties to Maine. They both split their time between Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania and Maine, where they each painted aspects of their life around them. N.C. Wyeth spent his summers in an old captain’s house he restored in Port Clyde Maine, while Andrew spent his in Cushing, Maine. In 1945, N.C. Wyeth received the honorary degree of master of arts from Bowdoin College.
To recover stolen items and prosecute art and cultural property crime, the FBI has a specialized Art Crime Team, of 16 special agents supported by special trial attorneys. The team investigates theft, fraud, looting and trafficking across state and international lines, with estimated losses in the billions. The FBI also runs the National Stolen Art File, a computerized index of stolen art and cultural properties that is used as a reference by law enforcement agencies worldwide.