FBI Returns Stolen Painting to North Shore Group

Bark Washington
The Bark Washington, a painting by an unknown artist, is named for the whaling ship it depicts (FBI photo).

FBI agents recently recovered and returned one of four precious works of art that were stolen from the Oysterponds Historical Society on the North Fork more than 14 years ago, authorities said.

An individual who paid several hundred dollars for one of the paintings at an antiques shop shortly after it was stolen in 2001 later checked the FBI’s Stolen Art Database, discovered the work was stolen, and called federal agents, who returned it to the rightful owners on Sept. 29, authorities said.

“The FBI told us this past spring they believed the Bark Washington had been located and asked if we wanted it back,” recalled Amy Folk, collections manager for the Orient-based historical society. “Of course we want it back!”

The Bark Washington, an 1860 painting by an unknown artist, depicts an entire whale hunting scene, including the whales and other smaller ships, which is unusual given that marine art generally depicts just a single ship.

That painting and another, the Jennie French Potter, plus two whale busks were stolen while the historical society’s building was undergoing renovations. They were estimated to be worth $32,000 in 2001, according to FBI spokeswoman Kelly Langmesser. When adjusted for inflation, their value today is $43,000.

Langmesser said that she could not disclose the identity of the person who turned in the stolen art. She noted neither the purchaser, nor the since-closed antiques shop in East Marion—not far from the historical society—would be charged with possessing stolen art. The FBI is treating the customer and the shop as “innocent third parties,” she said.

“When art theft occurs, it’s common for the thief to sell it right away to someone else who is going to sell it right away, creating distance between the thief and the piece,” said Langmesser, who described the theft as a crime of opportunity.

Both the returned painting and the one that has yet to be found are artistically unique and have ties to the community. They were both local ships captained by local families. The Jennie French Potter, a painting of a five-mast schooner by Samual F. Badger, is also unusual because most schooners have three masts.

Folk, the curator, hopes that the Jennie French Potter and the whale busks are also found. She described the whale busks as whalebones shaped like “giant tongue depressors with designs or writing on them” that were commonly used in corsets in the 19th century. Unfortunately, locating the stolen busks will be harder because there are no known photographs of them.

With no leads or suspects, the case was closed in 2002, Langmesser said. But with the recent discovery of at least one of the stolen paintings, the investigation is now continuing, although the thief has yet to be identified.

The FBI asks anyone with information on this case or any other stolen art works to call them 212-384-1000. Tipsters may remain anonymous.

Jennie French Potter
The FBI is still looking for the stolen Jennie French Potter.