BOSTON — The FBI and Portland police on Tuesday announced a reward of up to $20,000 for information leading to the recovery of two paintings by N.C. Wyeth stolen from Portland developer and art collector Joseph Soley in May 2013.

Police Chief Michael Sauschuck traveled to the Boston FBI office to join Vincent B. Lisi, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston division, to make the announcement. It comes a month after a New Hampshire man was convicted of illegally transporting four other N.C. Wyeth paintings stolen from Soley at the same time. Two other men have been convicted of possessing those stolen works.

N.C. Wyeth is the father of Andrew Wyeth, one of the best known American artists of the mid-20th century, and the grandfather of Jamie Wyeth, a critically acclaimed artist who frequently paints scenes of the Maine coast.

Lisi said the theft was probably the most significant art heist in Maine history based on the value of the paintings, and justifies the bureau putting up the reward money.

“For something like that in Maine, the theft of artwork worth tens of millions of dollars, we’re going to take it seriously,” Lisi said. “We’re going to give it everything we have up there.”

The missing paintings are titled “Go Dutton, and that right speedily” and “The Encounter on Freshwater Cliff.”

N.C. Wyeth was born in Massachusetts and split his time between Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and Maine. He is famous for many of his paintings and illustrations in children’s books and depicting classic literature, such as “Treasure Island,” “Robin Hood” and “The Last of the Mohicans.”

Soley said he got to know the Wyeths, particularly Andrew Wyeth, when he owned a summer home in Camden and the Wyeths lived nearby.

“This is an art collector that’s very passionate about (the Wyeth paintings) and wants his property back,” Sauschuck said. “It’s part of his collection that took him decades to collect.”

Sauschuck said the paintings had been stolen from an unoccupied apartment at 18 Monument Square in Portland. The theft was discovered on May 7, 2013, when a Soley family member went to the apartment.

Officials would not characterize the sophistication of the burglary or the security at the apartment.

Investigators said it appeared thieves targeted the Wyeth paintings, which were hanging in the apartment, leaving behind others that were on display.

Citing the ongoing investigation, an FBI spokesperson declined to comment on the possibility that someone known to Soley was involved in the theft.

Lisi said investigators believe the two missing paintings could be in the Boston area, but he wouldn’t say why.

“They could be hanging in somebody’s house. They could be in somebody’s basement. They could be in the trunk of a car,” Lisi said. “The longer they’re out there under difficult conditions, they could deteriorate.”

WHERE THE INVESTIGATION LEADS

The four that were recovered had some damage because of the way in which they had been stored, Lisi said. He said they can be restored but the damage has reduced their value somewhat.

Lawrence Estrella, 65, of Manchester, New Hampshire, pleaded guilty July 14 to transporting stolen property across state lines in April and was sentenced to seven years and eight months for transporting four of the six Wyeth paintings stolen from Soley’s downtown apartment.

Estrella pleaded guilty to one count of interstate transportation of stolen property, a felony. He has a lengthy criminal history that includes robberies and breaking and entering,

On Nov. 23, 2014, police located Estrella’s green Mercedes in the parking lot of a Comfort Inn in North Hollywood, California, and began surveillance of Estrella, court records said. Less than a month later, on Dec. 19, 2014, police recovered four of the six stolen paintings from a pawnshop in Beverly Hills.

Also implicated in the criminal case was aspiring rapper Oscar Roberts, 37, of Los Angeles, who was sentenced to 28 months in federal prison for pledging stolen property as security for a loan.

Roberts took the paintings to the Dina Collection, a Beverly Hills pawnshop that’s featured on “Beverly Hills Pawn” on the Reelz network, for a $100,000 loan.

Dina Collection owner Yossi Dina called police after suspecting they were stolen.

A third man, Dean Coroniti, of North Hollywood, California, also pleaded guilty to possessing stolen artwork, but has not yet been sentenced and much of the case against him remains sealed by federal authorities.

Lisi would not say whether police believe Estrella, Roberts or Coroniti were involved with the original theft. They have not been charged in connection with it.

The three have not led police to the two missing works, and Lisi would not comment on the degree to which they have cooperated with investigators.

The $20,000 reward for the stolen art is not unprecedented, an agency spokeswoman said, noting that the FBI often offers rewards for information leading to bank robbers and other criminals. The timing of the reward indicates that the trail may have run cold.

“We’ve been exhausting all the investigative steps that we have,” Lisi said. “We decided this would be a good time (to) go out there with a reward to see if we can generate some leads.”

If someone has information but is concerned about prosecution, they should consult with an attorney who can contact the U.S. Attorney’s office to discuss immunity, Lisi said.

Asked whether investigators believe the thieves were accomplished art thieves or opportunists trying to get whatever they could for the stolen items, Lisi replied that it could be both.

“There’s a strong possibility it was somebody familiar with art and wanted to take advantage of the situation,” he said.

A MULTIBILLION DOLLAR BUSINESS

Soley said at Estrella’s sentencing that he spent 50 years accumulating the N.C. Wyeth artwork, and was “shocked” to find they had been removed from the apartment when he returned from a trip.

The four recovered paintings are: “The Unwrit Dogma,” “At a touch from Michael’s knife,” “The Duel” and “John Brimlecombe.”

Court documents list the value of the four paintings at $1 million, though Soley said it’s difficult to estimate the value of the paintings and that they could be worth up to $50 million.

Portland police didn’t publicize the theft at the time. Sauschuck said police treated it as a burglary, collecting physical evidence and canvassing the area, but alerted the FBI when the value of the stolen artwork became clear.

Stephen Kurkjian, author of “Master Thieves,” a book about the theft of $500 million masterworks form the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990, said paintings like N.C. Wyeth’s might be easier to sell on the black market than better known works that would be easily recognized.

Somebody would not be able to steal and fence, for instance, the iconic “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth, he said, or a Rembrandt or Vermeer. The great majority of art thefts are not from museums, but from people’s homes, he said.

Even so, the value of the stolen N.C. Wyeth paintings will be much less than the legitimate retail value, he said.

“They’re not going to pay big money,” Kurkjian said. “If I’m interested in buying stolen art, I’m not going to pay dollar for dollar. I may consider paying dimes on the dollar.”

Kurkjian said art theft is a multibillion dollar business, the third largest crime market after drugs and illegal weapons, he said.

One way the FBI catches art thieves is by posing as buyers of stolen art. That is how agents caught three men in 1974 who were trying to sell five paintings by N.C. Wyeth and Andrew Wyeth that had been stolen from the Monmouth home of a Woolworth heiress. Those paintings were then valued at $165,000.

Police ask that anyone with information about the theft contact the FBI at (800) 225-5324.

 


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