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BYU recovers stolen painting from Swiss baron's estate

Published: Monday, Feb. 20 2012 10:33 p.m. MST

After being stolen sometime between 1970-85, "Silver Chalice with Roses" resurfaced in 1987. It was listed in an art catalogue, produced by art collector and artist Barbara Novack. The issue was used to showcase the extensive works owned by a wealthy collector in Switzerland. The magazine listed the provenance — or genealogy — of the piece. Right at the top of the listing was Brigham Young University. Unbeknownst to the current handler, a Swiss count named Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the "Silver Chalice" was stolen from BYU.

On June 13, 1987, Lemmon sent a letter politely asking the baron to return the painting to Brigham Young University, explaining the situation.

The baron's estate not so politely declined. He didn't like hearing his money was ill spent.

"It went on hold after that because they were very adamant that they would not return it," Lemmon said.

Despite the estate's unwavering stance, Lemmon began to work feverishly on the case.

The chase

"The challenge then became, we have to prove how it was originally in our art collection," Lemmon said. The goal was to fill in the missing pieces on the provenance, so if a trial became necessary, the task force could subpoena each person who had owned and sold the work of art.

Lemmon pulled the file. He found a couple of pieces of information to work with to begin tracing the provenance. First, this piece was part of the Mahonri Mackintosh Young collection donated to the school. Second, there was a photo on file of the painting, which helped prove BYU did in fact have the art piece at some point in time. Third, Lemmon navigated through countless minutes of acquisition committee meetings to be sure the painting was never authorized to be sold. It wasn't.

With these facts in hand, Lemmon began to work backward from the baron to find the original source of the thievery.

He found out the baron bought it from an art dealer in New York, a man by the name of Andrew Crispo. However, Crispo was unavailable because he was incarcerated at a New York penitentiary for murdering a model. Lemmon had to communicate with the man through Crispo's attorney.

Lemmon said he was lucky because Crispo didn't like the man he bought it from. Shortly after initial contact, Lemmon received a handwritten note from Crispo with the name of the man who sold "Silver Chalice with Roses" to him, Ira Spanierman. This was a familiar name to Lemmon, because Spanierman also handled several sales that Lemmon was tracking at the time. Spanierman said he bought the painting from New York art dealer, Terry DeLapp. Lemmon interviewed DeLapp and found him fairly cooperative. DeLapp gave Lemmon reason to look back west with word that DeLapp purchased it from an art dealer in Denver, Colo., Fred Rosenstock.

Rosenstock provided Lemmon with a critical piece of information. He had purchased it from a man named Dan Olsen. Olsen lived in Park City, Utah, and owned a gallery in Salt Lake City. He turned out to be a major player in many of the missing art pieces.

"The only part we were never able to put together is how Dan got his hands on it from the beginning," Lemmon said. "We pretty well assume we know how, but we never could really directly confirm."

Lemmon declined mentioning the specifics on his theories. But Lemmon believes Olsen possessed it at some point, because he interviewed several witnesses who said they saw it hanging in Olsen's house. Olsen has since died, taking his secrets with him.

Olsen's involvement aside, Lemmon had finally gathered enough information to continue negotiations with the baron.

The count

Though the puzzle was coming together, communication with Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza didn't go well. Lemmon said that at that time, art recovery was not the same as having a car stolen, where police would just seize it and return it. There wasn't really a process to recover the painting, and it was especially tricky because the baron thought he bought the painting in good faith. Since it was listed as stolen, it also barred the baron from selling the painting until the case was solved.

At one point, Lemmon actually sat down with the baron's attorney and went through the case and "just appealed to his ethics." The baron's attorney wouldn't budge.

Lemmon wouldn't either.

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