This Sunday, June 26 at 2 p.m., Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) in New Paltz will host a program that should delight history and mystery buffs alike. “A Tale of Two Paintings” will feature Carol Johnson, HHS trustee and coordinator of the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection at the Elting Memorial Library, and Josephine Bloodgood, director of Curatorial and Preservation Affairs at HHS, sharing an exciting true crime story with an unusually happy ending.
All over the globe, there’s a thriving trade in stolen artworks. Sometimes the theft is quite blatant, as in the looting in the early 19th century by the Earl of Elgin of a large collection of priceless Classical Greek sculptures from the Parthenon. Boris Johnson and the British Museum are still fighting UNESCO’s order to repatriate the Elgin Marbles to Greece. Nazi Germany was equally shameless in stealing thousands of precious artworks from Jewish homes, intended for Adolf Hitler’s own private collection. Many such have been lost, but occasionally a news story will surface about a missing Nazi-confiscated piece resurfacing and being returned to the surviving family.
One might think that awareness of these scandalous high-profile thefts would make art dealers and auctioneers extremely circumspect about establishing the provenance and legal ownership of the artworks they’re selling. But as Johnson and Bloodgood discovered, that’s not necessarily the case. The world’s most prestigious auction house, Sotheby’s, seems to have dropped the ball when it sold a pair of 1820s paintings by the itinerant portraitist Ammi Phillips in an auction of “Important Americana” in 2005. As it turned out, the two paintings had been stolen in February 1972 from Historic Huguenot Street.
Born in Colebrook, Connecticut in 1788, Ammi Phillips spent five decades traveling throughout the Hudson Valley, Massachusetts and Connecticut painting commissioned portraits of men, women and children – and occasionally their pets: Girl in Red Dress with Her Cat and Dog, likely painted in Saugerties, is probably his most widely recognized work. Typical of their period, his portraits of adults usually depict individuals in formal clothing: mostly black dresses or suits with white accents. The women often wear translucent white ruffled caps. If there’s a dash of color to be seen, it’s usually red, often in the form of a Bible or other book that the subject is holding. Postures tend to be stiff, facial expressions bleak.
Flipping through the nearly 800 images in the catalog My People: The Works of Ammi Phillips by David R. Allaway (https://issuu.com/n2xb/docs/ammi_phillips_-_abstract__thumbnail) yields the impression that it wouldn’t be difficult to confuse one Phillips work with another. Fortunately for HHS, the historical society had photographed the portraits of prominent New Paltz residents Dirck D. Wynkoop (1738-1827) and his wife Annatje Eltinge (1748-1827) shortly after they were donated by Marie Wiersum. According to Johnson, Wiersum and her husband had bought the 1799 LeFevre House on Huguenot Street, formerly the home of Dirk Wynkoop Elting, grandson of the couple in the portraits. “The paintings hung in the house he built for 150 years. The paintings went with the house,” Johnson explains.
Eventually, the Wiersums decided to sell the house, but took the paintings with them, for fear that the new owner would divide the building up into apartments. In December 1971, they donated them to HHS, which had since acquired the LeFevre House from Ruth Heidgerd and wanted to restore the paintings to their previous spots. Three months later, two of the historic buildings on Huguenot Street were burglarized and many valuables lost, including the Dirck Wynkoop and Annatje Eltinge portraits.
HHS put out an alert in the form of postcards with photos of the stolen articles. Says Johnson, “Within a month they got a tip, and 75 percent of the items were recovered in an antique store in New York City. The owner was arrested, but we don’t know the outcome.”
The two missing portraits were not found at the time, however. But the existence of the postcards with their images proved crucial decades later when Johnson made it her mission to track them down if she could. She recalls the sorrow of her mentor, Ruth Heidgerd, who had felt a special attachment to the LeFevre House and never quite got over the theft. Later, Johnson learned more of the story from Marie Wiersum, who had become the children’s librarian at the Elting Library.
Determined to find out where the missing paintings had ended up, Johnson recruited Bloodgood to her cause, and the research project got serious in 2020 when normal activity at HHS and the Elting Library slowed down on account of the pandemic. “We were going through different stolen art databases, picking a lot of people’s brains,” Bloodgood recalls. Upon close examination of Allaway’s comprehensive 2019 catalog on Phillips, they noted that the two portraits were listed as missing, with no corresponding pictures. “But in Part 2, they had the images, saying that they had been sold by Sotheby’s,” Johnson explains. These “unidentified” portraits matched the photographs on HHS’ 1971 postcards.
Retrieving the portraits from their most recent owner was a complicated process that required the help of the New York division of the FBI’s Art Crime Team. “People were not very encouraging, saying that getting them back was going to be really expensive, and that Sotheby’s is going to fight this hard,” Bloodgood relates. So, the pair sought intervention by the FBI, who could subpoena the auction house. But first they had to put together a convincing file of paperwork, including proof of HHS’ ownership, the Deed of Gift from Wiersum. “We presented them a really solid case.”
In 2021, after locating the paintings, the FBI assigned an agent, Jessica Dittmer, to the case, and within a few months she turned up on the most recent owners’ doorstep and “took the art off the wall,” says Johnson. “The FBI did it tactfully.” The portraits were returned to HHS, 50 years and one day after the theft took place.
The recovered portraits make a great supplement to the organization’s 2020 exhibition “Never was a Slave: Jacob Wynkoop, Free and Black in 19th-Century New Paltz,” still on view in the DuBois Fort Visitor Center. As it turns out, Dirck D. Wynkoop was the owner of at least 14 African American slaves, one of whom was the father of Jacob Wynkoop, who went on to become a noted homebuilder in New Paltz and one of its first Black residents to exercise his right to vote. Dirck had used slave labor to run a wheat plantation and gristmill on land on Plains Road that had been inherited by his first wife, Sarah Eltinge.
A new exhibit focusing on the recovery of the paintings and the Wynkoop-Eltinge family will be up in the DuBois Fort through July 10. The portraits will remain on view in another exhibition focusing on exceptional new acquisitions from July 16 to December 18. “We’re going to keep them on display for a while and raise money to conserve the paintings,” says Bloodgood.
Sadly, The two portraits have sustained some damage: dings and scratches, a chipped frame. Annatje Eltinge’s canvas needs to be removed from its substrate, which has bowed, and remounted; worst of all, a clumsy previous touch-up attempt obliterated her right ear. HHS has engaged the Connecticut-based Yost Conservation, LLC, which has considerable experience in restoring paintings by Phillips; but funding for the project needs to be raised. Contributions can be pledged online at www.huguenotstreet.org/donate.
Meanwhile, you’re invited to attend “A Tale of Two Paintings” this Sunday, view the portraits and hear the thrilling recovery tale firsthand. Light refreshments will be served. Ticket prices are $15 general admission; $12 for HHS members, seniors, students and children under 13; and free for veterans, active military members and their families and children under 6. To register, visit www.huguenotstreet.org/calendar-of-events.
The Visitor Center is located at 81 Huguenot Street, open to the public Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through the end of October.