An unnamed oil-on-canvass portrait signed “Copley RA” and dated 1790 was sold for $85,000 at an auction Saturday by Stair Galleries in Hudson, N.Y.—far above the auction house’s initial price estimate of $1,500 to $2,500. The painting is identical to Copley’s portrait of William Ponsonby, the second earl of Bessborough, according to an art professional who asked that his name not be printed to preserve his relationship with the auction house.
Officials at Stair Galleries declined to comment on the matter, directing questions to Harvard and the FBI.
An FBI official involved in the handling of the case did not immediately return a request for comment. Harvard, meanwhile, said the two paintings that recently resurfaced had been first reported missing in 1968 and 1971.
“We are currently working with law enforcement authorities and the other parties involved to coordinate the paintings’ safe return, and we are pleased and relieved that they have been located,” University Art Museums spokesman Daron J. Manoogian said in a statement, which did not reveal the names of the works in question.
The Copley painting came into Harvard’s hands as a bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, according to the University Art Museums website. Winthrop, Class of 1886, left about 4,000 objects to his alma mater as part of his will.
The painting was sold when the William M. V. Kingsland Estate went on the auction block this past weekend.
Kingsland was found dead March 21, according to the New York Sun. Acquaintances who spoke to the Sun described him as “an unending trove of historic facts of the Upper East Side” who was himself surrounded by an “air of delightful mystery.” The Sun said that “it was unclear where his primary residence was,” and that New York’s well-known Kingsland family did not believe he was related to them.
An air of mystery surrounds the Bessborough portrait as well. The University Art Museums website includes an entry for the work but does not list it as missing or stolen. But unlike 20 of the 23 other Copley paintings listed in Harvard's collection, the University Art Museums website has no archived image of the Bessborough portrait.
The portrait is the work of one of colonial America’s most distinguished artists. Copley, born in Boston in 1738, was tied to the Tories who supported British rule during the time of the American Revolution. He left Massachusetts for London in 1774 and never returned to his native land. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1779—a likely explanation for the “R.A.” in the signature on the painting in question.
Bessborough, the subject of the portrait, was a Whig member of Parliament and a British government official in Ireland. He died in 1793.