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Mystery of Stolen Painting Deepens Despite Its Recovery : Art: The painting, found in a San Marino home, might be the work of famed artist Gilbert Stuart, who created the President's likeness seen on the dollar bill. But who really painted it and when?

October 23, 1991|SHAUNA SNOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once thought to be a masterpiece of colonial American art, a stolen painting of George Washington recently discovered in a San Marino home probably is more notable for its mysterious and controversial past than its dollar value.

The painting, stolen from UCLA on March 7, 1985, was believed to have been painted by Gilbert Stuart, the most celebrated portrait painter of the early American Republic. Called "Portrait of George Washington," the 28-by-24-inch oil painting features America's first president in a pose identical to the one on the dollar bill.

Police last month arrested Christopher Francis Brown, 29, of West Los Angeles on charges of receiving or concealing stolen property, but he was never arraigned because of a three-year statute of limitations.

Until it turned up last month in the San Marino home of Brown's parents, the portrait had been long forgotten by investigating officers and even the Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery at UCLA, which years ago had been paid for the loss by its insurance company.

In fact, Henry Hopkins, who became the gallery's director on July 1, had never even heard of the "stolen masterpiece" when police called earlier this month to tell him it had been found.

Police immediately thought they had found a Stuart masterpiece worth as much as $250,000, but UCLA's records soon raised strong doubts.

"There are a lot of things about this painting that cannot be answered absolutely, including who painted it and when it was painted," said Hopkins, who is also chairman of UCLA's Art Department.

It is known that, for more than a century, the painting was considered an important work. In a UCLA file of tattered clippings and other materials dating back to the 1920s, the painting is hailed as "The famous Lee Washington," referring to the belief that it had once been owned by Civil War hero Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The work was believed to be one of nearly 100 versions painted by Stuart (1755-1828) of his famed 1796 "Athenaeum Portrait" of Washington (so called because it was housed for decades at the Boston Athenaeum), which was used as the image for the dollar bill.

That work, now co-owned by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, was one of three Stuart portraits for which the first President posed. Stuart later painted multiple versions of each of the three portraits, including two Washingtons that have been near where the "Lee Washington" was found--at the Huntington Library and Art Gallery in San Marino.

Today, some scholars question the accuracy of Stuart's likenesses of Washington, but they have become the preferred history book image of the President.

Theodore Stebbins, curator of paintings at the Boston museum, said any of the Stuart Washingtons would be considered "quite rare and valuable." The last two Stuart Washington portraits sold at auction for $455,000 in 1988 and $220,000 in 1989.

The Washington portrait discovered in the San Marino home of Brown's parents was given to UCLA in 1939 as part of the 49-piece collection of local real estate magnate, explorer and arts patron Willits J. Hole.

Questions arose about several works in the Hole collection, including the Stuart Washington.

"There is no date on it, and no information that would specify if it was done at (Stuart's) time or maybe 50 years later," Hopkins said, explaining that the work may have been done by a student of Stuart, much as some paintings attributed to European masters may have been done by their students. "But it's not an open forgery; it's certainly of that school."

Hopkins' records indicate that, even in the 1920s, there were some doubts about the painting's authenticity.

In 1974, however, UCLA brought in experts to study the painting, including two top Los Angeles County Museum of Art officials--Ben Johnson, then head conservator, and the late Kenneth Donahue, then museum director.

"Their determination was that perhaps it was a Stuart," said Hopkins. "But they also said that it was in such a wrecked state, that its condition was so bad . . . that it would basically have to be repainted to restore it."

The painting's poor condition, which Hopkins said resulted from unsophisticated restoration and cleaning techniques used in the 1930s and '40s, led Sotheby's auction house to estimate its value at "worse than $1,000" in the early 1980s. Sotheby's agreed with art historian Charles Mount, who in 1964 had described the painting as merely "a replica."

Although a UCLA police report on the theft listed the painting's value at "$30,000 plus," insurer Lloyds of London went by the Sotheby's estimate--the last formal one done on the work--and paid UCLA $1,000 for the "total loss" of the artwork in mid-1985.

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