A rare piece of Baroque art. An international mystery. A determined art expert.
And finally, after nearly 60 years, a resolution to a theft first discovered in 1965 — in Munich.
When a year-end donation 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 — the museum staff was thrilled.
“How truly delightful it is that Hagerstown now has a Sassoferrato to call its own!” museum Executive Director Sarah Hall gushed in a column for The Herald-Mail.
It was no small distinction — most of Sassoferrato’s known drawings are in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, one of Queen Elizabeth II’s several homes in Britain.
The drawing, “Madonna and Child (c. 1650),” was part of a collection donated to the museum by John and Sylvie O’Brien. They had purchased the work from a French collector in 1970.
The piece is a study for oil paintings Sassoferrato completed later, and originally included a study of a hand in the upper right corner.
a startling discovery
Once the acquisition was made, Daniel Fulco, the museum’s Agita M. Stine Schreiber curator, set about the business of researching the piece.
“The drawing came into the collection (over) the holidays. And oftentimes what we will do is, we do preliminary checking, we do some basic research on the piece,” Fulco told The Herald-Mail. “But then later, after it’s been accessed, we will often go into more depth, especially if we’re planning to do a feature on it or something like that.”
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 Sassoferrato’s works, primarily from the collection at Windsor.
“And sure enough, there’s the drawing pictured in one of his essays. And I said, ‘Wow, that looks a lot like the drawing that was donated by John and Sylvie O’Brien,'” Fulco said.
“So I took the book, and I went downstairs into storage. And lo and behold, when I put them together, I said, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is almost a mirror image.’
“And that’s when there was a little bit of a drop in my stomach, because I was kind of like, ‘oh no,’ because the caption book said ‘missing/stolen, since 1965, Munich Graphic Collection, Germany.'”
And that’s when Fulco knew he had to talk to his colleagues about next steps.
“But at the same time, of course, we had just very recently accessed this. It was also disappointing, because it would have been a major acquisition for the museum,” he said.
“But we are in an era now of transparency. And so it is the duty of the museum to do due diligence and return it to its rightful owner.”
He also spoke with the donors, who hadn’t realized it was stolen.
“John O’Brien had acquired it in 1970,” he said, “and with that you get into many unknowns, because you can’t know exactly where it was between 1965 and 1970.
Museum collections weren’t documented at that point as they are now, he added, and stolen works were more difficult to track.
In fact, the initial discovery of the theft in 1965 was a bit of a fluke.
A student doing research at the Graphic Collection in Munich discovered on Aug. 13, 1965, that the drawing had been turned away from its base and stolen. The museum contacted Munich police, but the Munich prosecutor’s office reported the investigation closed by the end of the week, the authorities concluded all leads had been exhausted and the thief couldn’t be identified.
In other words, nobody knew when the piece was stolen, or by whom.
Fulco and Collections Registrar Sarah Wolfe, compared the drawing with the missing work, depicted “in the catalog, and concluded that most of it matched upline for line” — although some alterations had been made to the drawing, presumably to make it easier for the thief to sell.
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Fulco said the alteration could have been done with a light eraser, a tool or a mild solution, but on the upper right of the sheet, a study of the hands was “almost erased to oblivion.” And the drawing’s original inventory number had been erased as well.
The damage “undermines the integrity of the artist’s technique,” Fulco said. “It does diminish its value, that is its monetary value. And it spoils for us, as viewers, the artist’s original intents, which were to really show the contrast between the shading and the highlights of the draperies of the Madonna and child, and also their facial details, because the outlines of Sassoferrato are so clear … they’re very linear, very crisp, they’re also rounded — it depends on what part of the figure — that when this person did that, to disguise it for sale on the black market, they have totally diminished the drawing.”
Nevertheless, while Fulco couldn’t comment on its actual value, it’s still rare and therefore still valuable.
A mystery partly resolved
The museum contacted the FBI for procedural guidance, and contacted the museum in Germany. And at some point soon, the piece will be returned.
“Our museum greatly appreciates the conscientiousness given to the drawing by the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in acquiring it,” Michael Hering, director of the State Graphic Collection in Munich, said in a statement. “This attentiveness made it possible to identify the sheet as the one that had been stolen from the holdings of the Graphische Sammlung in 1965 and has been sorely missed ever since.”
Museum officials there thought the work had been lost forever.
“It is very fortunate and encouraging that an exchange between museums on different continents can be conducted in such a collegial manner,” Herring said.
But you still have a chance to see the piece before it goes home; it is on display at the museum through August.
“While I will definitely feel a pang of loss when we pack the drawing up to return it to Munich, I’m proud of the curatorial research that allowed us to send this drawing home, and I am appreciative of the time we have had to enjoy this beautiful drawing firsthand,” 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.