BYU sleuth work tracks down long-lost painting

By Tori Ackerman

Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 29 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

A visitor at the BYU Museum of Art examines the painting, "Silver Chalice with Roses" (above) by J. Alden Weir, which is one of the most recently recovered paintings in the 'heist" that occurred 30-40 years ago Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012, in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo, Tom Smart, Deseret News)

The Associated Press

PROVO, Utah — The painting simply vanished.

A beautiful oil and canvas painted by the hand of an American master, it was stolen sometime between 1970 and 1985.

Once a persistent detective determined it was missing, it was too late to know whether it had once graced a cultured professor's wall or waited patiently in a corner for the day it would be showcased to the masses.

Certainly no one could say who took it. And to this day, nobody knows how "The Silver Chalice with Roses" slipped into the shadows of the art world's international black market.

At least nobody is telling.

"The Silver Chalice" made its way through the hands of a local crook, art dealers in Park City, Denver and New York — one of whom is in prison for murdering a model — and a Swiss baron.

It's a story that took BYU detectives years to unravel.

You could say it all started around 1959.

Mahonri Young was only two years in his grave. His estate, combined with his deceased wife Dorothy's, boasted nearly 10,000 works of art — a collection that would make any art connoisseur weak at the knees.

After the couple's deaths, heirs of the estate decided to bestow the art treasury to one lucky recipient: Brigham Young University. Perhaps this transaction was appropriate because Young happened to be the grandson of the school's namesake.

BYU didn't have a museum, so where did the 9,903 art pieces in the Young collection go?

For an amateur in the art game, BYU's answer was storage rooms, with the occasional piece making its way to a faculty member's wall.

And in this game, BYU certainly got played.

For the next 15 years pieces of artwork disappeared, and no one noticed their departure via shadowy transactions shrouded in secrecy.

It wasn't until 1986 that a light was shined on years of deceit. BYU Police Lt. Arnie Lemmon decided to investigate the years of ongoing rumors of fraud and thievery within the BYU art department. He went into the case focusing on certain bronze works said to be fakes. What he uncovered turned out to be more than just a couple forgeries — between $4 million and $6 million dollars in art works had vanished.

BYU isn't one to let go of valuable items easily, and the ongoing search turned into decades of detective work.

Lemmon took a special interest in this particular case. His work began with informing the art world that there were stolen pieces floating around. Lemmon registered about 250 missing pieces with the International Foundation for Art Research, the world's largest database of missing art. The foundation keeps its finger on the pulse of any clues that might surface concerning the missing hoard.

Thus far the international art theft detectives have aided in the recovery of about 45 paintings, most recently the oil and canvas "Silver Chalice with Roses," painted by Dorothy's father, J. Alden Weir. But why does this painting, one barely larger than a piece of printer paper, get special mention?

After being stolen sometime between 1970 and 1985, "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.

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