Persistence leads to recovery of stolen painting

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What was intended as a birthday present more than 120 years ago became a valuable lost treasure to the art department of BYU.

In January, “The Silver Chalice with Roses,” painted by J. Alden Weir, was returned to the BYU Museum of Art after being lost for more than 40 years. Its initial loss was not noticed until one persistent policeman noticed something awry.

BYU Lt. Arnie Lemmon started out as a rookie policeman at BYU with no interest in art. His captain and some of the officials in the school of fine arts questioned the authenticity of many of the bronze sculptures on campus. Lemmon went through files to determine the sculptures’ source origins. What started from a simple investigation of validity led Lemmon into a lengthy case.

“It became evident that it was more than just bronzes that were an issue,” Lemmon said.

Fundraising for the Museum of Art had just begun. Lemmon and other officials created a computer program and inputted every piece of art the filing system said was on BYU campus to fill the new museum. Following a complete inventory of all the art on campus, Lemmon found that almost 900 works of art were missing. Among these was “The Silver Chalice with Roses.”

Over the course of three years, Lemmon traveled across the country with an investigative team to track down this art and determine how they lost track of so much. Lemmon utilized help from one of the two “art cops” in the country, Tom Moscardini of NYPD.

“He mentored me in the dark side of the art world,” Lemmon said.

Extensive collaboration with Moscardini and International Art Research, a catalog for missing art, resulted in Lemmon finding several big players in the black market. He found his leads.

Among these leads was an art catalog in 1987. The catalog featured the art collection of a Swiss baron. In this collection was “The Silver Chalice with Roses.” Unknown to him, the baron had obtained this painting from illegal sources.

Lemmon hit a roadblock. Collection from overseas sources are difficult simply because of national laws. Many of the 900 pieces of art are in Europe were Lemmon said its hopeless to recover them. So, Lemmon had to work closely with the baron’s lawyer in Manhattan. Lemmon sent a letter to the baron later in 1987 asking for the return of the artwork to BYU. The baron was not thrilled that he had spent his money wastefully. He declined. Lemmon then went through countless case files to find something stating the painting was never for sale.

During this time, Lemmon and BYU’s attorney, Dave Thomas, kept constant contact with the baron’s lawyer by “appealing to his ethics” and reminding him that they would never let up.

“We were never going to clear title to them,” Lemmon said.

Ed Lind, associate director of the Museum of Art, said the difficulty of the case increased because neither the date nor time of the alleged robbery could be confirmed. Lind said it was BYU’s responsibility to protect the art they received.

“If you leave the latch open,” Lind said, “you can’t blame someone else if your cows get away.”

In 2002, the baron died, leaving his art collection behind. Lemmon and Thomas continued to pursue the case with the baron’s estate attorney, but a compromise could not be met. Last year, negotiations intensified and finally, an agreement was met. The buyback of the painting was assisted with the help of Tom Stone.

Stone, a contributor to the Museum of Art, was intrigued by this case of missing art and wanted to help the painting get back to where it belonged. He and his wife contributed thousands of dollars to the painting’s repurchase.

“We find it hard to say no to this very dedicated group of leaders at the museum,” Stone said.

After nearly 40 years, thanks to Lemmon, his team and his perseverance, “The Silver Chalice” returned to BYU, its true home.

“It’s kinda fun to see it come back,” Lemmon said. “It was my case… it’s something that I’ve tracked for years.”

Beth Shepherdson, a freshman from Tampa, Fla., studying art history, said it is important for art to be kept with the right people. She saw from the perspective of the artist and the value in their art.

“Maybe it’s not to you, but it’s important to someone else,” Shepherdson said.

Stone said this case shows that theft will be diligently pursued, no matter what.

“We cherish those works,” Stone said, “and we’re not cavalier about it.”

 

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