Published: May 18, 2016
LAURENS, S.C. — For 13 years the whereabouts of the paintings of Belle Baruch and her beloved horse, Souriant III, had remained unknown. The paintings had been stolen in 2003 from Belle’s house at the Hobcaw Barony Foundation, a 16,000-acre property, near Georgetown, S.C.
On April 29, Ivy Auctions of Laurens, S.C, returned the Sir Alfred Munnings painting of Belle on her prized horse, Souriant, along with other missing artwork to the Hobcaw Barony Foundation. With a total value exceeding $2 million, three Munnings paintings and several other pieces of valuable artwork, including a number of Havell Audubons reported stolen in 2003.
Ivy Auctions had received a consignment April 26, which was discovered to include a significant portion of this stolen art. Patty Ivy observed the three paintings shortly after they arrived and was aware of the artist Munnings and the prices his paintings commanded at auction. The Ivys discussed having the paintings authenticated and checking them against the FBI’s stolen art list.
On April 27, before the auction house had started the authentication process, Frazer Pajak, Architect and Associate Professor Interior Design Emeritus from Converse College and also a contract photographer, arrived to photograph items for Ivy’s June 18 auction catalog. Upon seeing the three paintings, he exclaimed “Oh, my God, it’s the missing paintings…it’s Belle on Souriant…it’s the stolen paintings from Hobcaw Barony.”
His excitement was understandable as Pajak had a connection with Hobcaw Barony. In 2009–2010, he, in conjunction with Converse College, had done a study of Belle’s house. At that time, he created drawings to facilitate a future restoration of the house.
A quick online search last month of the paintings confirmed what Pajak was already sure of. The search turned up a 2013 Antiques Roadshow feature of the theft. The feature gave national attention to the stolen art and renewed interest in the case that had grown cold. In addition to the spotlighted paintings, pictures of the rest of the stolen art were also included in the website article. It was then that the Ivys and Pajak realized the missing Audubons were a part of the consignment that Ivy Auctions had received. Somehow, 11 of the missing pieces had remained together. A call was made to the foundation’s executive director George Chastain.
When Chastain was notified about the paintings, he was interested but not overly excited. Since the airing of the TV show three years ago, the foundation had received many false leads; so any new lead was met with healthy skepticism. However, the fact that the Audubons were also among the artwork did give credence to the probability that this artwork might actually be the missing paintings. Ivy Auctions then notified the FBI that stolen paintings were in their possession.
FBI Special Agent Matt Jacobson of Greenville, S.C., was assigned to the case. Arrangements were made with Chastain and Jacobson to meet at Ivy Auctions to view the paintings and return them to the foundation. When Chastain and Thomas Tisdale, Foundation attorney, arrived, they quickly confirmed that they believed the paintings were in fact the ones stolen in 2013. Special Agent Jacobson approved the transfer of the paintings to the foundation. In all, three Munnings paintings, seven Audubons and an engraving by James Watson titled “North County Mail” were returned.
It is believed that the consignors of the estate were unaware of the stolen art. Who stole the art, their travels since 2003 and how they wound up among the deceased possessions still remains a mystery. Though some questions remain unanswered, Belle and Souriant are back home where they belong.
The condition of the art runs from very good to poor. The foundation is in the process of conserving and restoring the art. It is their intention to create a traveling exhibit of the works to tour the state.
For more information, www.IvyAuctions.com or 864-682-2750.
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