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Wanted: the owners of up to 137 art works discovered in an apartment in Manhattan, suspected stolen.
The FBI is appealing for owners to come forward to claim the paintings and sculptures that were discovered in the Upper East Side in one of the more unusual mysteries to fall to federal investigators.
The artworks belonged to an occasional art writer and genealogist William M.V. Kingsland.
He died in March 2006, aged 62, leaving no will. His collection of about 300 pieces - including works by Alberto Giacometti, Pablo Picasso and Odilon Redon - was handed to two auction houses to sell off.
But over the past 18 months, the relatively straight-forward story of an intestate private art collector has slowly turned into a deepening mystery of double identities and theft. The alarm was first sounded when a gallery owner who bought a portrait by John Singleton Copley of the Second Earl of Bessborough for $85,000.
Looking into its provenance, he found it had been stolen from Harvard
University in 1971.
The FBI's specialist art crime unit was brought in to investigate, revealing further stolen works, including a bust by Giacometti valued at about $1m which Kingsland had used as a door-stop. The sale in London of a small still-life by Giorgio Morandi for $600,000 was also rescinded after it was found to have been stolen.
The ultimate irony was that two works by Picasso that were on their way from his apartment to Christie's auction house were stolen by the removal workers in mid-transit.
The paintings, valued at $30,000 each, were recovered, only to be identified as already having been stolen, from a New York gallery in 1967.
As the legitimacy of the collection was unravelling, so was the identity of its owner. Kingsland was a well-known figure among art houses and within the rarified world of Upper East Side high society.
He presented himself as a bon viveur, wit and expert on the geneology of prominent local families.
He told friends his middle initials stood for Milliken and Vanderbilt and that he lived on Fifth Avenue. He dressed in a rumpled blue blazer described as "Ivy League circa 1965", and led friends on informal tours of the neighbourhood, relating gossipy titbits along the way. But he very rarely invited anyone into his home.
After his death, a rather different picture emerged. He was born in 1943 to Jewish refugees from Europe who lived in the Bronx. His name was Melvyn Kohn, which he changed aged 17 because he wanted a name that was more "literary sounding", according to his parents.
There was no Fifth Avenue address. Nor had he attended Harvard or been
married to a French royal, as he had let it be known.
Colin Stair, whose auction house in Hudson, New York, was one of the two appointed to sell the collection, visited the Kingsland apartment on 72nd Street soon after he died. "It was frankly a mess. It was crammed floor to ceiling with art works - they were stuffed under the bed, over every surface. We thought at first he couldn't have lived there and just used it as storage, but then we discovered he did live there."
Of the works that Stair Galleries have handled, at least four were stolen. Stair said he noticed a trend: "The smaller the items were, the more likely they were to have been stolen."
The FBI has now identified 20 stolen pieces, works by Fairfield Porter and Kurt Schwitters among them, but suspects that among the 137 whose provenance is still in doubt there could be many more. Jim Wynne, leading the FBI's investigation, said he was hampered by the fact that the thefts all appear to have happened in the late 60s and early 70s. "It's been difficult - some of the galleries are closed, some people are deceased or moved on and records aren't available," he said.
Hence the FBI's appeal on its website under the headline, "Stolen art uncovered: is it yours?"
THE GUARDIAN
 
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