FBI seeks owners of stolen art

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The Independent Culture

When New York art collector William Kingsland died in 2006, he left behind hundreds of works of art. But some, including works by Pablo Picasso, turned out to have been stolen.

The FBI, searching for the rightful owners of possibly stolen items, posted photographs on Monday of some Kingsland items on its Web site.

Kingsland left behind an impressive collection of more than 300 pieces, including a minimalist still-life by Giorgio Morandi and collages by Kurt Schwitters.

Because he left no will and no heirs stepped forward, public administrators hired auction houses Christie's and Stair Galleries to sell the art.

But an oil-on-canvas by early-American painter John Singleton auctioned off by Stair for $85,000 was discovered to have been a stolen item, and Christie's had to cancel a sale from Kingsland's collection when issues of provenance, or history of ownership, cropped up.

The FBI said it has since found several items had been stolen and believes there are more. It posted photographs of some 140 pieces of art on its web site which can be seen by clicking here.

"But because of the overwhelming size of the collection and the complex and time-consuming nature of provenance investigations, we decided the best and most expeditious course of action was to publicize the art work to the general public," the agency said in a statement.

Reports at the time of Kingsland's death said he was well known among those in the art world, although his past was shrouded in mystery. His real name was Melvyn Kohn, for instance, and he grew up in the New York borough of the Bronx.

Colin Stair, owner of the Stair Galleries, said he was not sure how Kingsland had acquired the stolen items and whether he knew their history. But he speculated that the Copley portrait and some other works were likely too large for Kingsland to have stolen them himself.

The FBI says theft of art and cultural property, often involving trafficking across state lines and international borders, results in losses of as much as $6 billion a year.

Stair said both galleries and buyers have become more aware of checking provenance in recent years, and recommended anyone contemplating a major purchase to check art loss registries.

"You want to get clear and legal title," he said.