BYU recovers stolen painting from Swiss baron's estate

Published: Monday, Feb. 20 2012 10:00 p.m. MST

"We made it known in the art world that we will never relinquish titles (to these paintings)," Lemmon said.

Other travels

Meanwhile, "Silver Chalice with Roses" impressed itself upon minds across the country.

Marian Wardle, curator of American art at BYU's Museum of Art and an expert on Weir, came to BYU in 2000 knowing the history behind BYU's stolen paintings, but she didn't know "Silver Chalice with Roses" was one of the many to go missing.

She had seen the painting at the 1980 Weir exhibit at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, listed as part of the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection. But back then she, like BYU, didn't know it was stolen. She remained interested in any movement of Weir paintings.

It wasn't until 2003 when all of the pieces came together for Wardle. Barbara Novak's auction catalogue came across her desk and she noticed a Weir painting in the pages. She was excited, because of her love of the Weirs, but she was even more astonished when she saw the provenance.

"I stopped and looked at it and had seen it before in the Met show," Wardle said. "I looked at the provenance and it said BYU, and all of the sudden it clicked. I ran into the directors and said, 'Isn't that our piece?'"

Wardle started her tenure at BYU too late to know what the police had been doing to recover the painting, but her expertise on the Weirs added its own flair to the elaborate story.

The painting

"It's a lovely still life," Wardle said. "It was a transitional period for Julian Alden Weir, who was a very academic painter. These floral still lifes, I think, helped loosen up his brush, and he became a leader of the American impressionist painters. That is what he is known for."

He painted "Silver Chalice with Roses," for his fiancee Anna Dwight Baker, one of his former students. For her birthday, he presented her the painting, which is inscribed on the chalice "J. Alden Weir to Anna Dwight Baker" and dated May 18, 1882. The painting was passed on to their daughter, Dorothy Weir, who married Mahonri Young. Weir predeceased her husband, Young, and when he died, his heirs brought his collection to BYU.

No one knows exactly were the "Silver Chalice" was stored when it came to BYU, and then it disappeared.

Then it was found again, but remained out of BYU's reach. "Legal wheels move slowly, that's the reason," Wardle said.

The persistence

To keep up with the investigation, Lemmon periodically sent a letter requesting the painting's return. The baron died in 2002, and BYU's attorney reintroduced himself to the estate's attorney. The negotiations intensified in 2009. For about a year and a half they negotiated back and forth to reach an agreement, and finally they came to a decision. The attorney for the estate had an independent appraiser assess the painting's current market value, and BYU would pay for half the appraised value.

Though the amount was undisclosed, Lemmon said the painting was valued at auction in 2002 at $60,000 to $80,000.

The purchase brought decades of investigative work to an end.

"It was really gratifying to get it back," Lemmon said. "It also sends the message to the art world that we aren't just going to roll over what else is out there that is ours. If we find it, and we have enough of a case file on it to prove that it belongs to us, then we will go after it."

"Silver Chalice" on display

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