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An Open Search : BYU Puzzle: Case of the Missing Art

Times Staff Writer

Three years ago, Brigham Young University decided that the time had come to inventory its sprawling art collection, a large mix of paintings and drawings scattered around the campus. There was no formal museum, so art department officials found themselves unlocking closets and forgotten storage rooms, trying to match their paper records against the objects they found.

Their records, by all accounts, were not very good, but the officials quickly came to the conclusion they had feared: the collection had been looted. There had been few safeguards in the preceding years and BYU was paying the price. In all, about 1,200 pieces of art were missing, almost 10% of the university’s holdings.

The missing pieces ranged widely from student paintings that had little or no value to works by highly regarded artists such as French impressionist Claude Monet and the American painter Winslow Homer. Eventually the university calculated its monetary loss at about $4 million.

Wounded Pride

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Just as costly were the wounds to the university’s pride and the loss of part of its cultural heritage. BYU is a Mormon institution and a large number of missing paintings were by Mohonri M. Young, grandson of Mormon pioneer Brigham Young.

And worst of all, it looked like an inside job. That meant that the perpetrators almost had to be members of the trusted faculty, and probably Mormons to boot.

In similar circumstances, many other institutions would have kept quiet about the losses, fearing that publicity would discourage future donations of art. BYU decided to do just the opposite.

Not only did university officials announce their findings, they embarked on a campaign to get the art back. With missionary zeal, the university launched a detective search for painting after painting, tracking their movement through a maze of dealers and owners.

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‘Swept Under the Rug’

“There are dozens of other universities and museums that have suffered losses like ours. It’s just that you don’t hear about them,” said Virgie Day, the manager of the fine arts collection at BYU. “This is a crime that almost always gets swept under the rug because people who run the institutions don’t want to be embarrassed.”

Most art experts would agree with Day. As the value of art works has skyrocketed over the last decade, institutional collections that are not carefully managed have increasingly become the target of crooked dealers and thieves.

Constance Lowenthal, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research in New York, said it is impossible to estimate how much thievery takes place because most institutions are successful in covering it up. But the problem is serious and growing, she said.

“Most often you see this happen at institutions that never set out to establish an art collection in the first place,” Lowenthal said. “It just sort of accumulates through donations. The institution doesn’t realize how valuable the stuff has become and there’s no professional care-taking. Eventually someone spots this vulnerability and they make off with the art.”

In the case of BYU, the search for the missing art has left investigators knocking on some interesting doors. Two drawings missing from the university collection eventually wound up in the hands of noted collector Armand Hammer. Another painting currently resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Still another was located in the possession of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, a Swiss industrialist whose collection is widely regarded as one of the finest in the world.

BYU hastened to add that none of these collectors took part in the looting of the BYU holdings or even had knowledge of it. All of them are what is known in the argot of art theft as “innocent buyers,” meaning that they acquired the art after it had changed hands several times and had no reason to believe it was tainted.

“Most of these people, even the museums, don’t check the provenance (ownership history) of a painting before they buy it,’ said Arnold Lemmon, one of the BYU investigators. “It’s not part of the tradition. It always amazes me to find out that collectors will pay hundreds of thousands for a painting, and do it on a handshake.”

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Elaborate Forgery Scam

In the case of Hammer, for example, the two drawings were discovered to have left BYU in an elaborate forgery scam. A New York art dealer had borrowed the drawings, removed the originals from their frames and replaced them with fakes.

The originals--one by Monet and the other by Homer--then were taken to a gallery operated by Armand Hammer’s late brother, Victor Hammer. The dealer claimed that the drawings had been purchased from BYU, and offered them for sale. Victor Hammer paid $21,500.

Eventually Armand Hammer acquired them from his brother and the two drawings toured the United States for several years as part of the Armand Hammer collection. Catalogues from the exhibits even identified the drawings as once belonging to the university.

By the time BYU approached Hammer, the drawings had been missing from the university for 18 years, and Hammer had long since sold both of them. However, the Homer drawing still was in the possession of M. Knoedler and Co., a New York gallery owned by Hammer. He instructed the gallery to return it to the university.

But the happy ending--at least from the university’s viewpoint--of the Hammer episode has not been the rule. In most other instances, current holders of the art works have resisted their return, and BYU has found itself plunged into thorny moral and legal dilemmas.

‘Send It Back’

“You would think,” Day said, “that we could just say to these people, ‘Look, it left our collection without our permission and there’s no record of any sale or trade. Unless you can prove otherwise, send it back.’ ”

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Day sighed. “It’s turned out not to be that simple.”

The university has discovered, for example, that under some circumstances innocent buyers may now rightfully own the art works, whether or not they were purloined from BYU. In recent years courts have ruled that an art work can lose its taint and become legitimate property if the first owner does not pursue his claims quickly.

In 1987, for example, a federal court decided that a $500,000 Monet painting should not be returned to a German owner even though it clearly had been stolen in the aftermath of World War II. The court argued that the German family had not tried hard enough to find the painting in the intervening years, during which time the piece was advertised in art catalogues and offered at auctions. The family’s failure to pursue the painting, the court said, effectively terminated its claim.

Unfortunately for BYU, the university has often found itself in a position similar to that of the German owner. Some of the BYU thefts occurred in the late 1960s, yet the university did not track them down until the late 1980s. As with the Monet painting, BYU’s missing art works often were shown publicly without the university intervening.

These legal barriers may be one reason why the university’s campaign has not met with much success. Thus far only about 40 of the 1,200 missing pieces have been recovered, and art department officials say they expect that the great majority of art works will never return.

Chief among the resisting owners is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has refused thus far to return a painting by American artist J. Alden Weir. Ashton Hawkins, counsel for the museum, said the Metropolitan has resisted primarily because the museum believes that BYU abandoned its claim to the painting by waiting so long to announce its ownership.

“I doubt very much that they have any legal claim,” Hawkins said. Negotiations are still under way, he said, and suggested that some compromise might be found, such as sending the painting to BYU on a long-term loan.

With the legal situation so murky, BYU has decided to make an ethical appeal to current holders. Last year the university published a list of the more important missing works in IFAR Reports, a New York journal specializing in stolen art, and asked for information as to its whereabouts. And soon, the university will mail a letter to the known holders asking for their cooperation.

“Lawsuits are very expensive and we don’t know that we would prevail,” said William Fillmore, associate general counsel for the university. “For the most part we are going to have to rely on people’s good will and sense of what is right.”

Just how BYU got into this fix is a sad story. It begins in 1960 when the university was bequeathed the art collection of Mohonri Young, an artist himself and a member of one of Mormondom’s main families. The Young collection doubled the size of the universities holdings overnight, and added paintings by Weir, Homer, Maynard Dixon, and even some drawings by Rembrandt.

Available to Faculty

Without a museum, the art was made available to faculty members who needed wall decoration. Professors would be allowed into the storage rooms, where they could choose from among the paintings, some of which were worth tens of thousands of dollars. Sometimes records of the loans were made; sometimes not.

One member of the art faculty who realized the importance of the collection was Wesley M. Burnside. An expert on Western American painting, Burnside was driven by the desire to build an outstanding art collection at BYU and a grand museum in which to display it. The donation by Young meshed perfectly with his ambitions.

The artworks were important to Burnside not because they represented the art he craved for the university, but because they gave him pieces that he could trade. And trade he did.

Working with a coterie of art dealers from New York, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, Burnside soon was making deals at a feverish pace. Some of the trades were approved by a faculty committee appointed to oversee the collection, but, according to BYU officials, many were unauthorized trades made by Burnside alone.

Alas, Burnside was not very good at the trade game. Dealers walked in with junk and walked out with treasures, BYU officials now contend. In some cases, they said, Burnside would cement his deals by throwing in “sweeteners,” or extra works from the storage room. Few if any records were kept of the deals or the sweeteners.

No Records Kept

“We have heard stories of trucks pulling up in the off hours and being loaded with paintings. There were no records of that either, of course,” Day said.

Just why Burnside was allowed a such a free rein with the collection remains a mystery. Although he eventually acquired the title of acquisitions director, Burnside’s authority was technically limited to making recommendations to the faculty committee.

“For the most part, we simply didn’t know what was happening,” said Robert Marshall, chairman of the art department. “We assumed Wes (Burnside) was telling us everything, that the trades we approved were all the trades taking place. We also knew that the collection was Wes’ whole life, and we didn’t believe he could do anything to damage it.”

An eccentric man, Burnside also accepted commissions from the dealers and invested the proceeds in an array of bizarre schemes to raise money for the museum. His former colleagues said that Burnside once paid thousands of dollars to a man who claimed that he had invented a machine that would make gold. Additional funds were invested in perpetual-motion machines and devices that would detect oil reserves underground.

“I would say Wes lost hundreds of thousands in his investments,” said one colleague who asked not to be identified. “The thing is, Wes was trying to make a killing so he could donate all the money to the university for the museum. I believe that. Wes always thought he was on the verge of pulling it off.”

Offered for Sale

Ironically, the disaster remained hidden for years after Burnside retired in 1984. James Mason, a new dean of the art department, heard rumors that paintings from the BYU collection were being offered for sale on the international art market. Curious, he ordered an audit of the collection, and the awful truth was finally revealed.

Eventually, Burnside was convicted on one count of unlawful dealing in university property and fined $500. In one indication that he did not profit handsomely from his misdealing, Burnside asked the court for a delay in paying the fine so he could raise the money.

He now spends his days in a small house near the university, the lights turned off to save on electricity. The disgrace, he said, has been terrible. “I guess they have to blame somebody,” he said.

Asked about his trading, Burnside brightened and said he brought more than 1,000 paintings to the university. Of course, he said, it was hard to keep track of just which pieces were going out and which were coming in.

“The dealers might have gotten the best of us,” he said. “You don’t beat a dealer. They were sharper than us.”

Frustrated over the results of their campaign to reclaim the art, university officials said they may press more civil suits and criminal actions in the future. Most of those, they said, will be directed at dealers who preyed on Burnside and the university.

Or they may just give up. No institution has ever been so open about a massive art theft, they said, and no institution has ever worked so hard to get it back. The fact that so few objects have been retrieved may be a message, they said.

“I think we will end up with only a small percentage of what we lost,” Day said. “I guess the most important gain is that people know we mean business now. They know it will not happen again, not here at least.”


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