Published: October 31, 2006
“This just keeps getting juicier and juicier as the days go by,” commented Colin Stair, principal of Stair Galleries, who over the weekend of October 14 and 15 unknowingly auctioned just under 250 lots of tainted merchandise. Sold during the auction were lots consigned by the City of New York from the estate of the late William M.V. Kingsland, all of which ultimately had their sales rescinded after allegations surfaced revealing that some of the material was stolen.
The nearly 250 lots represented what would have amounted to a gross sales total of more than $287,000 at Stair’s, including one painting that realized $97,750, including premium.
The story began to unfold this past March when Kingsland was found deceased in his 72nd Street apartment in New York City. Without a last will and testament on record and unable to find anyone who claimed to be an heir, the City of New York claimed ownership of the apartment and the contents and soon after began to solicit bids from numerous auction houses to liquidate his collections. Christie’s acquired some of the items from the apartment, yet the bulk of the merchandise went to Stair Galleries.
Kingsland, described as a quirky fellow who was well known in his Upper East Side Manhattan neighborhood, apparently had a darker side. Unbeknownst to friends and acquaintances, aside from possessing stolen artworks, it was discovered that Kingsland was born Melvyn Kohn, although it is uncertain when he changed his name. According to one publicized report, the middle initial “V” that Kingsland proudly touted represented a heritage linked to the prestigious Vanderbilt family.
“There were about 550 items in the apartment and we got 450 of them,” said Stair. “We ran 250 in this past sale and had the remainder scheduled for this weekend’s [October 27] auction. The public administrator’s office told us that they had clear title to the items, and we had no reason not to believe them,” he said. Stair noted that in subsequent checks, the paintings in question do not appear in the Foundation for Art Research files, which tracks stolen works of art.
As Saturday’s auction unfolded, items from the Kingsland estate were well received, not only by the standing-room-only crowd in the auction gallery, but also a host of phone bidders and hundreds of Internet bidders. “The items sold well over the high estimates and virtually everything from the estate was bid very well,” commented Stair. The apex of the Kingsland lots came as a painting, modestly cataloged as “English School: Profile Portrait of a Gentleman,” was offered late on the first day of the sale. Estimated at $1,5/2,500, the relined oil on canvas was signed Copley, although the gallery originally did not give the signature much credence and termed it merely an attribution.
Things began to look up for the Copley painting when a London dealer flew in to inspect it and as other major players took note. As the painting crossed the auction block, Manhattan art dealer Alex Acevedo, bidding stealthily from the side of the gallery, banged away at it until he claimed the lot at $97,750.
A short while later, another Kingsland consigned portrait, this one depicting past-Harvard President John Thornton Kirkland, Class of 1789, and in the manner of Gilbert Stuart, shot past the $200/400 estimates, hammering down at $8,625.
Everything appeared peachy for all involved, until Acevedo contacted Stair early on the following Monday morning. “Alex called by 9:30 am Monday and said, ‘Colin, I think we’ve got a problem,'” revealed the auctioneer. Stair related that Acevedo had traced ownership back to Harvard’s Fogg Museum and noted that the Copley painting was registered there in 1968 and was never recorded as having come out of the collection. Further research revealed that the painting had gone missing from Harvard between 1968 and 1971.
“Alex is kind of a hero in this whole thing. He did the homework and identified the painting, called us and called the FBI. He is nothing but a first class guy,” stated Stair.
Although unconfirmed as of press time, Stair commented that Kohn, aka Kingsland, was a Harvard student and possibly a graduate. “We don’t know if he actually stole the items, or if he was an innocent collector who was duped into buying the stuff. From what I have heard about him, I think it might have been the latter,” stated Stair.
Daron J. Manoogian, public relations manager for the Harvard University Art Museums, released a brief written statement, declaring, “The Harvard University Art Museums recently located two paintings from the permanent collection that had been missing for more than 30 years. We are currently working with law enforcement authorities and the other parties involved to coordinate the safe return of the paintings, and we are pleased and relieved that they have been located.”
The Art Theft division of the FBI is actively involved in the case.
Once Stair Galleries confirmed the allegations and the FBI became involved, a decision was made to cancel the sale of every item sold with Kingsland provenance. In the week following the auction, Stair Galleries revealed that about 70 percent of the lots were back in the custody of the auction house and that most of the outstanding items would be returned soon. “Most everybody has been pretty understanding about the whole affair,” stated Stair, “although there are a handful of people that just don’t want to give the items back for whatever reason. Some of the items have already been listed on eBay, and those people seem to be the most reluctant to return the merchandise.
“Items were sold worldwide, with a fair amount of them selling either to the telephones or the web; none of that stuff was shipped out and it all remains in our possession. We have called everyone to apprise them of the situation, and I’ve got to tell you,” he said, “we have been sworn at in just about every language.”
Optimistic that everything will eventually work out in the end, Stair commented that once the proceedings are finished, the items deemed by the authorities to have clear title will be reoffered to the successful bidders for the price realized at the auction.
Reports in The New York Times and The Harvard Crimson also cited an Alberto Giacometti sculpture, consigned to Christie’s and now withdrawn from an upcoming auction, as reportedly having been stolen from a midtown Manhattan gallery in 1967. Other works of art from the Kingsland estate that were reported as stolen included a couple Fairfield Porter paintings, as well as works by French painter Odilon Redon and German painter Kurt Schwitters.
“The place was just incredible,” stated Stair of Kingsland’s apartment. “When we first walked in to it, there were 400 or more paintings leaning against the walls and stacked up all over the place. All this stuff was just crammed into a tiny, single-bedroom apartment,” confided the auctioneer. “It was an auctioneer’s dream come true,” he said, “but, I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”
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