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Stolen art — BYU searches the world to recover pilfered pieces

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PROVO — Thirty-nine years ago this week, New York City art dealer Dion O'Wyatt swindled Brigham Young University out of a sketch by French impressionist painter Claude Monet and a drawing by American artist Winslow Homer.

On June 20, 1969, a BYU art collection manager allowed O'Wyatt to take the drawings back to New York for authentication because the dealer said he was interested in purchasing the pieces.

O'Wyatt did authenticate the Homer drawing, but he also hired a street artist to forge both pieces of art. He removed the originals from their frames and sold the drawings to Hammer Galleries of New York City. Then O'Wyatt placed the forgeries in the frames and personally delivered them to BYU on June 30, 1969.

The forgeries remained undiscovered for 16 years amid BYU's poorly protected art collection until new managers ordered an inventory in 1986. They were shaken to find that thieves, predatory art dealers and even previous donors had plundered more than 900 pieces of art.

The losses were calculated 23 years ago at $4 million to $6 million.

But this isn't a tale of thievery. Instead, it's a story of recovery. Some remarkable police work allowed BYU to reclaim the Monet sketch and Homer drawing from separate owners 19 years after the forgeries were switched for the originals.

And last year, after many years without a success, an international organization helped BYU recover another important work, this one a painting by a grandson of Brigham Young.

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Recovering art stolen 25, 30 or 40 years ago is difficult for many reasons, including the fact that most of the pieces were quickly sold and have since been resold to private buyers who had no idea they were buying something that belonged to BYU.

"The bulk of our art went to Europe and was laundered there," BYU Police Lt. Arnie Lemmon said. "Ten years later, it started to bubble up again, after being sold two or three times between good-faith purchasers."

Lemmon has tracked the university's art around the world and has recovered about 60 pieces so far. He learned about one painting when it was put up for auction by Christie's in Beverly Hills. A minister had bought the painting for $15,000, but he had to surrender it to BYU.

Some who find out they own a BYU work don't cooperate. For 20 years, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art has refused to return a BYU painting, a work by J. Alden Weir. An attorney for the museum didn't dispute BYU's previous ownership but told the Los Angeles Times in 1989 that BYU abandoned its claim because the painting had been shown repeatedly over the years without any complaint from the university.

The museum's position hasn't changed. Neither has BYU's.

"We will never give up pressing them," Lemmon said. "We'll never stop hounding them."

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After O'Wyatt had the Monet and Homer forged, he quickly sold the originals. The recovery of the Homer original is one of Lemmon's favorite stories.

Before O'Wyatt even returned the forgeries to BYU, he had sold the original Homer, a drawing called "The Shepherdess" or "Portrait of a Girl," and the original Monet, known as "The Boat Ride" or "Two Women in a Boat," to the Hammer Galleries.

World-famous physician, business tycoon, philanthropist and diplomat Armand Hammer and his brother organized the Hammer Galleries in 1930 to sell Czarist works of art Hammer bought from the Soviets.

In October 1969, four months after purchasing the Monet and the Homer, the Hammer Galleries sold the stolen items to a private collector who showed them in exhibits around the country. The Monet also traveled to shows in England, Ireland and Russia.

BYU didn't know any of this. Then, in 1986, university police created a task force. Lemmon and Sgt. Dan Clark wrote a crude computer program to audit the entire campus collection. They found 2,000 missing pieces of art. They narrowed the number to 1,286 and then determined that more than 900 had been stolen, were missing, had been sold or traded without authorization or had been returned improperly to the original donor.

Lemmon began to track the Homer and Monet. He found an uncooperative O'Wyatt and met a New York police detective named Tom Moscardini. NYPD had art cops, and Moscardini mentored Lemmon on the dark side of the art world.

O'Wyatt appeared out of reach because, as Lemmon said, "the statute of limitations had tolled on most of these cases." But then Lemmon realized that O'Wyatt's crime crossed state lines, giving police a longer reach.

Armed with a warrant from Utah's governor and an extradition order from New York's, Lemmon and Moscardini met with O'Wyatt and his attorney in the fall of 1987.

"The attorney said, 'We don't have to do anything,"' Lemmon recalled. "Then I laid out the arrest warrant and the extradition order with the governors' signatures and said if he didn't confess, we would arrest him and take him to a downtown Manhattan jail. He was 70."

Lemmon wanted a confession so he could hunt for the drawings. O'Wyatt agreed to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor count of theft by deception.

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O'Wyatt's information helped Lemmon track Homer's "Shepherdess" to the Hammer Galleries, which in 1973 sold the work to New York City's M. Knoedler & Co.

A Knoedler employee called Lemmon to say he'd found the drawing in a trash bin, but when Lemmon asked for it back, Knoedler officials balked.

Lemmon had developed a friendship with Armand Hammer's attorney and called him for help. The attorney called Hammer. Hammer stepped out of negotiations between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan and called Knoedler.

"It's Dr. Hammer," he said. "Give it back."

On Dec. 18, 1987, Lemmon flew to New York City and retrieved the wrapped drawing. He had it authenticated by a Homer expert then made sure he was the last one to board the plane for Utah.

"I put the painting in an overhead bin after everyone else had sat down," he said this week. "Then one last guy came running onto the plane, opened the bin and went to throw his bag in it. I literally screamed, 'No!' and stopped him just in time."

Knoedler & Co. had also had the Monet, worth $250,000, but sold it through Christie's of London to an English art dealer in 1974. He later sold it to a private New York City collector. BYU attorneys negotiated in the blind with the collector for the return of "Two Women in a Boat."

Lemmon still doesn't know who the final owner was, and he doesn't care.

"If we have a good case, we need to get the piece of art," he said. "In reality, it's not ours, it's the public's, it belongs to the members of the church who paid for the collection initially and the donors."

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Before the discovery of the losses, BYU's collection was loosely held. Faculty members were allowed into storage rooms to select art to decorate their office walls. Urban legends, rumors and innuendo swirled around the university about a Rembrandt found on the floor of a storage room, paintings rolled up and stuffed into corners.

The BYU loss was staggering. Nearly 10 percent of the 12,000-piece collection was gone. Rather than hide the embarrassment of the losses, which some counseled because the university was preparing to raise funds to build a museum to house its collection, BYU mounted a frontal assault in an effort to get the art back.

The recovery effort included registering the missing works with the International Foundation for Art Research. The university paid for an entire special edition of IFAR Reports, formerly the Stolen Art Alert, in which the entire story was laid out, warts and all, and listed 250 missing works. Interpol and the FBI joined the investigation.

"Since that was published, we have recovered 43," said Emily Poulsen, registrar at the BYU Museum of Art.

The list of missing works was later transferred to a business called the Art Loss Register.

"We are the world's largest database of stolen art," ALR Executive Director Chris Marinello said. "We now list more than 180,000 items, from paintings looted during the Holocaust to anything of value. We have a team of people who just search auction houses, dealer stock, eBay. Twenty-four hours a day, they pore over auctions, shows and fairs. When we find something, we call it a match and start trying to recover it."

From time to time, the folks at the Art Loss Register call BYU. Sometimes the match isn't a fit. Sometimes BYU can't make a good claim to a work and relinquishes its claim.

Last year, the ALR found what Marinello called a very nice couple in Florida trying to sell a painting that the ALR database said belonged to BYU.

"I felt bad telling her," he said.

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BYU's art collection exploded in size and significance in 1959 when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints acquired the estate of Mahonri Mackintosh Young on behalf of the university.

The grandson of Brigham Young, Mahonri Young's art collection numbered more than 10,000 pieces, including Rembrandt etchings and works by Monet, Homer, Courbet and Weir, who was Young's father-in-law.

A large part of the collection was Young's own work, created by an enigmatic man who had left Utah to study and work in New York and Paris.

Young painted "Port Washington Point, Long Island, NY," in 1912. Investigators learned it was missing when they did the inventory of the collection in 1986.

The Florida couple who had it were innocent.

"What's sad is many of these people are good-faith purchasers," Lemmon said.

Several years ago, a New Mexico art dealer sent BYU a Maynard Dixon painting to see if the university wanted to buy it. It turned out to be one of the missing works.

"We're not buying it," Lemmon told the dealer. "We're keeping it."

The Art Loss Register's Marinello said the Florida couple was lucky. They got their money back.

"Part of what we do is try to get people back their money," he said. "I found out where she bought it from and contacted that person and followed the history. Eventually, I found somebody who did not do their homework, didn't do due diligence. That person did not get their money back, but we were able to get the nice couple made whole."

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"Port Washington Point" now hangs in the administrative offices of BYU's museum, built after the losses were discovered with state-of-the-art security systems. The museum is run under strict procedures and guidelines. Those policies prevented Lemmon from holding the latest recovered painting during a photo shoot for this story.

Deep inside the museum, Poulsen maintains a file on every missing work, the critical key to any recovery. When ALR located "Port Washington Point," Poulsen had a strong file that included a photo of the painting and a Knoedler number of 257. The number corresponded with an inventory of the Young collection done by Knoedler when it was donated to BYU.

"That's gold for us," Lemmon said.

Many of the files aren't good enough to prove ownership.

"The problem with the Met piece is our case just isn't strong enough," BYU Museum spokesman Chris Wilson said. "The great thing that came out of this was that we now have a professional museum that operates on international standards and has an excellent database.

"We make sure now our records are good enough on pieces we acquire now and have acquired in the past so we can show provenance and prove we are the owners."

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The only other person prosecuted in BYU's art case was Wesley Burnside, an art history professor who managed the art collection during the thefts.

"There wasn't a criminal bone in his body," Lemmon said. "He was a single man who was a devout member of the LDS Church, and his mission in life was to build a museum on the BYU campus. I've often said Wes Burnside's mistress was the art collection.

"The downside with Wes Burnside, with all his good intent, was he was very gullible. A circle of seven or eight criminals wined and dined him and raped the collection. He sold off pieces he didn't think were the core of our collection without permission from the campus committee and made unauthorized trades. A pack of wolves preyed on him. They were really sharp. He was in way over his head.

"He died a broken man" in 1994, Lemmon said. "The reason we prosecuted him was to establish criminal acts had taken place."

Burnside pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of unlawfully dealing with property by a fiduciary and he cooperated with police.

"There's some real sad sides to this," said Lemmon, who declined to name other suspects and has turned down offers to do a book. "It destroyed Wes Burnside. People wouldn't leave him alone. I think it's better left alone."

Some of the suspects are rich, with high-profile attorneys.

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The "Port Washington Point" painting came back to BYU with a fraudulent BYU sticker on the back. The thief, trying to establish the painting's provenance, or proof of a clean history, created the sticker. The university has never made such a sticker or anything like it.

The painting is the only one returned to BYU since Poulsen began working at the museum five years ago, but she and Lemmon aren't done pursuing the lost art.

O'Wyatt took a second Homer drawing at the same time as the Monet sketch and other Homer drawing. He told police he loaned "Over the Garden Wall" to a relative who wouldn't return it.

The truth was he sold the drawing. It now hangs in a home in Scarsdale, N.Y. The university continues to negotiate for its return.

Lemmon and Poulsen also know who has a Weir painting called "A Lady with a Lyre," an incomplete work that the thief had taken to an artist and finished. Lemmon has spoken with that artist.

Another piece is part of the estate of Swiss Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza. The estate is being liquidated and BYU has been negotiating with the estate's attorneys for its return for about 20 years. The estate cannot sell the painting.

"It really devalues a work of art when you check the provenance and we say it's stolen and we will never relinquish title," Lemmon said. "Time is on our side."

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But time passes and BYU's Museum of Art is still without a portrait of Brigham Young by George Taggart, or one of former LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith by John Hafen. Four Weir oils and watercolors have been recovered, but 11 are still missing. So are three Minerva Teichert watercolors.

The university managed to get back a Renoir landscape done in oil on panel, but still doesn't have an Avard-Tennyson Fairbanks bust of Brigham Young or a Rodin bronze called "The Lion."

The losses remain painful, even to someone like Poulsen, who wasn't born when the art was stolen.

That made the recovery of "Port Washington Point" all the sweeter.

"It had seemed like a lost cause," Poulsen said. "It gave us renewed hope we could still go after these works of art."

IFAR executive director Sharon Flescher said BYU shouldn't lose hope.

"Statistics suggest that only about 10 percent of works that are reported stolen are recovered," she said. "Often, as in this case, it's many years later. Thirty years is indeed a long time, but 15 and 20 years is not very uncommon at all. It may take a whole generation before they change hands or where they change hands publicly so that someone who knows about the theft sees the work."

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Meanwhile, Lemmon is proud of the university for boosting the police department's budget during the initial investigation, which lasted years. He worked full-time on the art case for three years.

Similar thefts happened all around the world. "We were not that unusual as an institution," Lemmon said.

But the full story was rare.

"While there may be many art thefts, the enormity of this inside job at one university was really exceptional, which is why we devoted an entire issue of our publication to it," IFAR's Flescher said. "And the man formally in charge admitted wrongdoing, which also was unusual. It was a very large collection, a good collection and a varied collection."

BYU also took the unusual step of going public rather than hide its embarrassment.

"We were a model of public trust," Lemmon said. "We'll never recover it all, and at first it wasn't pretty, but pretty soon people began to praise us for our integrity and said they trusted us because we were willing to talk about something this bad.

"Donors started to give," he added. "We built a museum in the middle of all this. To me it's a world-class museum with world-class security and world-class administrators."

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com