This Sunday, June 26 at 2 p.m., Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) in New Paltz will host a program that should delight lovers of history and mystery. “A Tale of Two Paintings” will feature Carol Johnson, HHS Administrator 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 a thrilling true crime story with an exceptionally happy ending.
All over the world there is a thriving trade in stolen works of art. Sometimes the theft is quite blatant, as during the looting in the early 19e century by the Earl of Elgin of a large collection of priceless classical Greek sculpture from the Parthenon. Boris Johnson and the British Museum are still battling UNESCO’s order to repatriate the Elgin Marbles to Greece. Nazi Germany was equally shameless in stealing thousands of valuable works of art from Jewish homes, destined for Adolf Hitler’s own private collection. Many of them were lost, but every once in a while a news report surfaces of a missing piece confiscated by the Nazis that resurfaces and is returned to the surviving family.
One would think that knowledge of these outrageous large-scale thefts would make art dealers and auctioneers extremely wary of establishing the provenance and legal ownership of the artworks they sell. But as Johnson and Bloodgood discovered, that’s not necessarily the case. The world’s most prestigious auction house, Sotheby’s, appears to have dropped the ball when it sold a pair of 1820s paintings by itinerant portrait painter Ammi Phillips in an auction of ‘Important Americana’ in 2005. Both paintings were found to have been stolen in February 1972 from Historic Huguenot Street.
Born in Colebrook, Connecticut in 1788, Ammi Phillips spent five decades traveling through the Hudson Valley, Massachusetts and Connecticut painting portraits of men, women and children – and sometimes their pets. company : Girl in a red dress with her cat and dog, probably painted at Saugerties, is probably his most widely recognized work. Typical of their time, his adult portraits generally depict individuals dressed in ceremonial attire: mostly black dresses or suits with white accents. Women often wear translucent white ruffled beanies. If there is a hint of color to be seen, it is usually red, often in the form of a Bible or other book the subject is holding. Postures tend to be stiff, facial expressions dark.
Browse 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) gives the impression that it would not 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 purchased the 1799 LeFevre House on Huguenot Street, formerly the home of Dirk Wynkoop Elting, the couple’s grandson in the portraits. “The paintings hung in the house he built for 150 years. The paints went with the house,” says Johnson.
Eventually, the Wiersums decided to sell the house, but took the paintings with them, lest the new owner divide the building into apartments. In December 1971, they donated it to HHS, which had since acquired the LeFevre House from Ruth Heidgerd and wanted to restore the paintings to their previous location. Three months later, two of the historic buildings on Rue Huguenot were broken into and many valuables were lost, including portraits of Dirck Wynkoop and Annatje Eltinge.
HHS issued an alert in the form of postcards with photos of the stolen items. Says Johnson, “Within a month they were tipped and 75% of the items were recovered from an antique store in New York. The owner was arrested, but we don’t know the outcome.
The two missing portraits, however, were not found at the time. But the existence of the postcards with their images proved crucial decades later, when Johnson made it her mission to find them if she could. She remembers the grief of her mentor, Ruth Heidgerd, who had felt a special attachment to the LeFevre house and never quite recovered from the theft. Later, Johnson learned more about the story of Marie Wiersum, who had become the children’s librarian at the Elting Library.
Determined to find where the missing paintings were, Johnson recruited Bloodgood to her cause, and the research project became serious in 2020 when normal activity at HHS and the Elting Library slowed due to the pandemic. “We were going through different databases of stolen artwork, salvaging the brains of a lot of people,” Bloodgood recalls. After careful review of Allaway’s full 2019 catalog on Phillips, they noted that both portraits were listed as missing, with no corresponding images. “But in Part 2, they had the images, saying they were sold by Sotheby’s,” Johnson explains. These “unidentified” portraits matched the photographs in the 1971 HHS postcards.
Recovering the portraits from their most recent owner was a complicated process that required the assistance of the New York division of the FBI’s Art Crime team. “People weren’t very encouraging, saying it was going to be very expensive to get them back, and Sotheby’s was going to fight hard,” Bloodgood said. Thus, the couple requested the intervention of the FBI, which could assign the auction house. But first they had to build a compelling case of documents, including proof of HHS ownership, Wiersum’s deed of gift. “We presented them with a really strong case.”
In 2021, after locating the paintings, the FBI assigned an agent, Jessica Dittmer, to the case, and within months she showed up on the doorstep of the newer owners and “removed the art from the wall,” Johnson said. “The FBI did it tactfully.” The portraits were returned to HHS, 50 years and one day after the theft.
The recovered portraits make an excellent addition to the organization’s 2020 exhibition “Never was a Slave: Jacob Wynkoop, Free and Black in 19e-Century New Paltz,” still on view at the DuBois Fort Visitor Center. It turns out that Dirck D. Wynkoop owned at least 14 African American slaves, one of whom was the father of Jacob Wynkoop, who became a noted home builder in New Paltz and one of its first black residents to exercise their right to vote. Dirck had used slave labor to run a wheat plantation and flour mill on land in Plains Road which his first wife, Sarah Eltinge, had inherited.
A new exhibition dedicated to the recovery of the paintings and the Wynkoop-Eltinge family will be held at Fort DuBois until July 10. The portraits will remain visible in another exhibition devoted to exceptional new acquisitions from July 16 to December 18. I will be exhibiting them for a while and raising funds to keep the paintings,” Bloodgood says.
Unfortunately, both portraits suffered some damage: knocks and scratches, a chipped frame. Annatje Eltinge’s canvas must be removed from its support, which has bent, and reassembled; worst of all, a previous clumsy attempt at editing obliterated his right ear. HHS engaged Connecticut-based Yost Conservation, LLC, which has considerable experience restoring Phillips paintings; but project funding needs to be increased. Contributions can be announced online at www.huguenotstreet.org/donate.
Meanwhile, you are invited to attend “A Tale of Two Paintings” this Sunday, view the portraits and hear the exciting story of healing. Light refreshments will be served. Tickets are $15 general admission; $12 for HHS members, seniors, students, and children under 13; and free for veterans, active military personnel and their families, and children under 6 years old. To register, visit www.huguenotstreet.org/calendar-des-events.
The visitor center is located at 81, rue Huguenot, open to the public Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. until the end of October.