Who owns $10 million of paintings? Investigation seeks answers

New project monitors 14,000 pieces in state's fine arts collection

Published: Thursday, June 7 2012 8:59 a.m. MDT

Emily Johnson of Utah's Division of Arts and Museums demonstrates the RF ID scanning process in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 6, 2012. The Utah Arts Council is beginning the process of organizing a data base that will contain all art work that belongs to the state of Utah.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A smallish painting sits propped up in the office of the Utah Division of Arts and Museums. Anyone who appreciates Utah art can recognize the artist as the late Douglas Snow.

“He painted it in 1975,” division director Margaret Hunt said. “It’s one of many landscapes he created in the Torrey, Utah, area where he lived.”

The only problem is no one knows who the painting belongs to — whether it’s state property or part of a private collection. Hunt has initiated an investigation to find out.

The Snow painting is actually one of 10 paintings that have been hanging in the Heber Wells Building for years, and were recently taken down during a remodeling project. A building manager saw the works of art stacked up in a storage room, and alerted a grateful art lover: Hunt.

“He knew enough to see that at the bottom of one of the etchings, it was numbered and it was signed,” Hunt said. “And that was enough for him to see this is something of value that we need to protect.”

Coincidentally, the Utah Division of Arts and Museums has been working on a new state-of-the-art inventory project to keep track of approximately 1,400 pieces in the state's fine arts collection.

The division secured $58,000 to place Radio Frequency Identification tags on every painting, etching and sculpture, and connect it with a database. The database will give everyone in the system instant access to the location of any given work of art.

“We could use the same technology to produce a condition report, or to loan a piece to a gallery,” explained Emily Johnson, who is in charge of the RFID project.

It’s taken time to get to all of the pieces in the state fine arts collection, but there are still hundreds of other pieces — possibly the Snow and other Heber Wells works — that aren’t technically part of the collection and which are falling through the cracks.

The good news is that the official state collection — valued at just under $10 million, according to Hunt — is now on the "radar screen."

But Hunt plans to push for more, including listing the unidentified pieces and even creating a security RFID tag to track a work of art if it’s stolen.

“I get attached to this work,” Hunt said, looking longingly at the subtle grey-blue and red flecked Snow painting propped up near her desk.

“I mean, you can see, you can appreciate this beautiful painting right here. And it kind of makes you sick to think it might have been lost.”

E-mail: rpiatt@ksl.com

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