Published: September 30, 2003
A small, delicate winter landscape entitled “Dingleton Farm,” 1956, by Maxfield Parrish, that was stolen from Alma Gilbert’s California gallery 28 years ago has been released to her and is on its way home to be displayed at the Cornish Colony Museum. After a nine-month delay, all parties including the police, insurance company, auction house and consignors agreed to return the stolen work to Alma Gilbert.
Measuring 111/2 by 151/2 inches, the painting was taken from Gilbert’s gallery on March 15, 1975. It remained missing until January 16 of this year when a California auction house emailed Gilbert and asked if she could provide any information about the small oil that had been brought in for auction.
The search for the records of purchase, insurance and reports was begun. The police had at first informed Gilbert that because the statute of limitation was over, nothing could be done about the theft and that the work now legally belonged to either the consignor who had brought it in for sale, or to State Farm who had funded Gilbert the loss back in 1975.
Gilbert hired a law firm who pointed out to the investigating detective as well as to the consignor and auction house that any person, including the innocent purchaser, who acquired a stolen painting, did not acquire valid title because a thief cannot transfer valid title. Stolen property remains stolen property, no matter how many years have transpired from the date of the theft. Also, an innocent purchaser cannot withhold or sell the stolen property after learning of the theft without risk of violating section 496 of the Penal Code. Naftzger v.. American Numismatic Society, 42 Cal. App. 4th 421, 432-433 (1996). Any title derived from a thief, despite an authentic certificate of title is considered void.
Furthermore, according to the California Penal Code of Civil Procedures, the wrongful possession and refusal to return a stolen painting is conversion under California law. The statute of limitations for a legal action for conver-sion of an art object does not accrue until the “discovery of the whereabouts of the article by the aggrieved party, his or her agent, or the law enforcement agency which originally investigated the theft.”
State Farm located their initial records on the theft and their funding. They informed Gilbert that they would release their interest in the work provided they were funded with the same funds they had advanced her at the time of the theft, $12,400.
After months of negotiations with the consignors and the auction house, the matter was finally settled September 5 when the attorney for the consignor and the attorney for the auction house agreed that there was enough evidence to prove that the work had indeed been stolen from Gilbert and that she had proved rightful ownership. They agreed to release the painting to her.
On September 17, the police released their hold on the work and contacted Gilbert with the news that she was free to have the painting picked up.
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