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Foggy circumstances surround 1790 Copley painting's disappearance

By Katherine M. Gray and Daniel J. Hemel, Crimson Staff Writers

Two paintings that disappeared from Harvard’s collections more than three decades ago have resurfaced, the University said yesterday, and an art professional says that one of them is a 1790 portrait by John Singleton Copley.

An unnamed oil-on-canvas 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.

The painting is one of two known Copley renderings of Bessborough—another hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Copley scholar Jules D. Prown, who received his doctorate at Harvard in 1961 and is a professor emeritus at Yale, remembered seeing the portrait in Harvard’s collections when he was a doctoral student, and he said that there is a good chance the painting is authentic.

“Presumably if it’s a signed and dated picture, there wouldn’t be much doubt about it,” he said last night.

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 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.

While Manoogian’s statement did not reveal the names of the works in question, the art professional said that the second University-owned painting was a portrait of an early Harvard president.

One of the items listed in the Stair Galleries auction was labeled “J.T. Kirkland.” And the figure in that portrait bears a striking resemblance to the sitter in American painter Gilbert Stuart’s 1816 portrait of then-Harvard President John Thornton Kirkland, Class of 1789. Though the auction house estimated a $200 to $400 price tag for the Kirkland portrait, the item ultimately sold for $7,500.

The history of the newly-resurfaced Kirkland portrait remains unknown, but, according to the University Art Museums Web site, the Copley painting came into Harvard’s hands as a bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, Class of 1886, who 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 Web site includes an entry for the work, though it 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 Web site 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, had ties 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 “RA” 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.

Copley painted the Bessborough portrait after he moved from America to England and worked under a British patron. “He was a particular champion during his English phase,” said Margaretta M. Lovell, a professor of American art history and architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. She added that Copley, in his British years, adopted a painting style distinct from his American work.

Lovell said that the circumstances of the Kingsland controversy indicate that his heirs did not realize the painting was stolen. “Maybe [Kingsland] didn’t. It’s possible that he bought it in good faith,” she said.

Harvard has been a victim of art theft before—including in 1976, when thieves took six paintings worth more than $380,000 from President Derek C. Bok’s Elmwood home. The paintings—including two by French impressionist Eugene Boudin and one by 17th century Dutch painter Gerrit Berckheyde—were recovered the next year, The Crimson reported at the time.

—Staff writer Katherine M. Gray can be reached at kmgray@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.

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