September 7, 2019

The interesting fate of Joshua Reynolds' painting "A Young Girl and Her Dog", stolen in 1984.

Image Credit Left: www.thecatalogstar.com
Image Credit Right: Tokyo Fuji Art Museum (TFAM)
In 1984 a portrait of young lady Elizabeth Mathew with her dog, painted by Joshua Reynolds, was one of five artworks stolen from the mansion home, the Old Rectory of Sir Henry Price (1877–1963), and Eva ‘Eve’ Mary Dickson (1907–1994), the Lady Price, on church road in Newick, a village in the Lewes District of East Sussex, England.  The theft occurred during one of three burglaries which targeted at least twenty five artworks from Lady Price’s collection.  

Despite its (then) recent disappearance, the oil on canvas portrait, painted in or about 1780, sold a mere four years later during a London auction in July of 1988.  Leading up to the sale, the portrait garnered pride of place on the cover of Sotheby's auction catalog.   The winning bidder, an as yet unnamed member of the art trade, then sold the artwork on to the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum (TFAM) in 1990.  All this without anyone; Sotheby's, the should-have-been-well-informed savvy art market buyer, or the prestigious Japanese museum itself, appearing to have done a thorough check on the portrait's validity on the art market before or after acquiring the painting. 

The painting, listed on the museum's website as A Young Girl and Her Dog, had once been exhibited extensively.  It toured as Girl and Dog when displayed at the British Institution in 1831, later at Grafton Gallery in 1891 and again at the New Gallery from 1899 until 1900.  The oil painting was also included as part of a 1913 national loan exhibition at New Grosever Gallery and given a different title, that of Portrait of Miss Mathew, later Lady Elizabeth Mathew.  Apparently relying on these public appearances, the auction house and the subsequent buyers appeared to accept the collection history supplied at the time of the painting's sale.


Thomas Hamlet; his sale, Messrs. George Robins, August 1, 1833
Wynn Ellis; his sale, Christie’s May 6, 1876, lot 96
William Stuart Stirling-Crawford, Milton, who bequeathed it to his widow, Caroline, Duchess of Montrose; her sale, Christie’s, July 14, 1884, lot 36
Henry J. Pfungst from whom it passed to Arthur Smith
Sir Lionel Phillips, Bt., Tylney Hall, Winchfield, Hampshire; his sale, Christie’s, April 25, 1913, lot 58
Arthur Hamilton Lee, Later Viscount Lee of Fareham (1868-1947)

Yet where and when the painting was in the many years that passed after the artwork was purchased by Sir Lionel Phillips in 1913 failed to raise any eyebrows. 

Advocating for the legitimate heirs, descendants of Lady Price, who have been asking the museum for the painting back for years,  Christopher Marinello of Art Recovery International, indicated that the artwork was sold omitting the fact that Sir Henry Price purchased the portrait directly from the Viscount of Fareham in August 1942.  Representing the family in this claim, Marinello provided the museum with a copy of original correspondence for the purchase of the portrait for £6000, as well as related confirming documents and a photograph of the artwork when it was proudly displayed to the left of a fireplace in the family's home.  

"A Young Girl and Her Dog" by Joshua Reynolds
as photographed in the home of Sir Henry and Lady Price
Image Credit: Art Recovery International.
As the painting was not insured at the time of its theft, which would then transfer ownership to an insurance company upon any claims payout) and in accordance with British Common Law, which favors the dispossessed owners and by proxy the family's heirs, the artwork is still legally "owned" by the family in the UK.  British Common law stipulates that a thief cannot pass good title onward, no matter how many subsequent owners subsequently purchase an artwork in apparent good faith. 

According to a report in the Art Newspaper, a lawyer representing the Fuji Art Museum, Haruhiko Ogawa, of Kumada & Ogawa law firm, stated at some point in the process that the museum is currently contesting the Price family heir's (Radley-Smith) claim.  The lawyer indicated that the family of Lady Price and their representative had not established without a doubt that the painting the museum has in its possession is in fact the same one which was stolen in Newick, despite there being no record of another exact work of art executed by the artist Reynolds which matches the individual female and scenery details portrayed in the singular commissioned portrait.  

Artist Joshua Reynolds made his living in the portrait trade and was paid well by wealthy clients who wanted flattering portraits of themselves and or their family members. Like some prolific artists of the period, he established a workshop of drapery painters and assistants who assisted him in keeping up with the large number of commissions he undertook.  Demand for Reynolds work at one point was so high that the artist's records substantiate that the painter had as many as 150 appointments for individual sittings in a single year, sometimes scheduling as many as three sittings a day to keep up with his busy work calendar.

This portrait of A Young Girl and Her Dog, was commissioned by Irish nobleman, Francis Mathew, later the First Earl of Llandaff.  Elizabeth Matthew was his daughter.  It is thought that Reynolds painted the details of Lady Mathew and left both the dog and the painting's surrounding background elements  to others working within his workshop.  This assumption may be speculative though as the pocketbook the artist kept for the period of time when this portrait was completed has been lost over time, obscuring the exact dates for this artwork's sitting, as well as the price paid to the artist for the commission of the 77.5 x 63.5 cm portrait.

Having said that, the purchase of art work on the international market is undoubtedly a ticklish business.  Japanese civil law assumes that if the possessor has acquired a thing stolen or lost in good faith by purchase at an auction, or in a public market, or from a trader who deals in such wares, the individual or individuals wronged can reclaim the object from the possessor, only upon the condition that the wronged individual repays to the possessor the amount which the latter, in this case the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum as the bona fide purchaser, paid for the painting.   

Perhaps to put pressure upon the TFAM, by drawing attention to the case during ICOM Kyoto 2019, the biggest conference of the museum field, Marinello issued a tweet which included a photograph of an apparently overlooked news article from the Mid Sussex Times, published on May 25, 1984, which reported on the theft, clearly mentioning a masterpiece by Joshua Reynolds and which included a large photo of the stolen painting.  Marinello's tweet pushed for the museum to act in good faith by revealing who the consignor was, reminding them of their obligation as an ICOM member museum to adhere to the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums. 

ICOM's Code of ethics addresses diverse museum-related topics such as acquisition procedures and compliance with legislation and which specifically states:

2.2 Valid Title
No object or specimen should be acquired by purchase, gift, loan, bequest, or exchange unless the acquiring museum is satisfied that a valid title is held. Evidence of lawful ownership in a country is not necessarily valid title.

2.3 Provenance and Due Diligence
Every effort must be made before acquisition to ensure that any object or specimen offered for purchase, gift, loan, bequest, or exchange has not been illegally obtained in, or exported from its country of origin or any intermediate country in which it might have been owned legally (including the museum’s own country). Due diligence in this regard should establish the full history of the item since discovery or production.

The TFAM has been the subject of acquisition controversy in the past.  In 2012, in a tussle with Italy, the museum was involved in a dispute over the return of a Leonardo da Vinci painting commissioned in the early 16th century for the "Salone dei Cinquecento" of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence after it was established that the artwork had been illegally exported during World War II. The museum also claimed in that instance to have purchased that work in good faith.

On November 26th 2012 the museum and Italy's MiBACT issued a joint statement simultaneously in Tokyo and Rome, wherein the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum and Italy's Ministry of Cultural announced the signing of a long-term loan agreement alongside the donation of Da Vinci's Fight for the Banner, a moment of the "Battle of Anghiari" by the museum.

For now the Radley-Smith heirs sit and wait while the jurisdictions in question hash out who should be favored, the victim of theft or the acquirer in good faith of this stolen work of art.  Unfortunately in this case, the heirs of the family do not have the weight of an entire country's loans to dangle as a carrot for negotiation. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

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