"Art Hunters Handbook" Authors Les and Sue Fox Investigate Missing $30 Million Art Collection

Share Article

Philadelphia controller Alan Butkovitz searches for 85 valuable paintings.

In 2004, a $30 million art collection featuring 100 museum quality 19th and 20th century paintings was discovered in 264 Philadelphia public schools, only to be put into secret storage, where it remains in 2012. The paintings were part of 1,200 artworks appraised by Corporate Art Source, who had previously evaluated the multi-million art collection found in Chicago's school system. Philadelphia school officials, led by Natalye Paquin, recommended the creation of an Advisory Council to raise money for art restoration and public display of the historical collection, including works by famous American artists Thomas Eakins and Henry Ossawa Tanner.

That was back in 2004. Shortly thereafter, the Philadelphia School District ordered the paintings to be taken from the schools, where they had been enjoyed for decades, and placed into undisclosed storage locations. Only one painting has ever been seen by the general public. A catalog of the paintings, and their value, remains a secret, despite attempts by Philadelphia's Controller Alan Butkovitz to bring the collection to light.

Les and Sue Fox, New York Times bestselling authors of "The Art Hunters Handbook," have recently launched an investigation into the whereabouts of the collection. "These paintings belong to America, to the people of Philadelphia, and especially to the students," said Les. "It's just not right that they've been secreted away with no official statement about their future. The Controller of Philadelphia is concerned about the safety of the paintings. But his efforts have been thwarted by the Philadelphia School District. No one is saying that anything has actually been lost or stolen. But that's a valid question."

In 2007, Daniel Whelan, a former member of Philadelphia's School Reform Commission, proposed selling some of the art to reduce the district's budget deficit. Butkovitz said he believes children benefit from seeing art in school, unless security costs to safeguard the works make that impractical. "Some of the photographs we've seen indicate possible shredding or other damage to some valuable pieces, and we're alarmed about that," Butkovitz warned. "If the policy makers decide they want to get out of the art-custody business and cash in, that's their decision. Our job is to make sure if they think they have $30 million to cash in, there's actually $30 million." Butkovitz said that his auditors could not find 85 works at the locations listed in the district's art inventory.

The only painting ever revealed to the general public is "Lunch Time" by Catherine Morris Wright, last seen at the Woodrow Wilson Middle School in 2004, when some 72 paintings were removed. The Foxes have contacted officials at the Wilson School for further information. A large group of paintings was also removed from Central High School, where Thomas Eakins graduated in 1861. Eakins' 1902 portrait of former principal John Seely Hart was part of the Central High collection, and is estimated to be worth more than $500,000. In 2008, supporters of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, raised $68 million to purchase Thomas Eakins' masterpiece "The Gross Clinic," an American art icon which has been compared to Rembrandt's "Night Watch."

A painting of dogs by Henry Ossawa Tanner, the famous African-American impressionist, was bought by the Wilson School for $5 in 1937. The Foxes were unable to obtain a photo of either the Tanner or the Eakins painting, but they are committed to making all of the missing art accessible to the public. In 1981, "The Thankful Poor," a masterpiece by Tanner, was purchased by comedian and famous art collector Bill Cosby at Sotheby's for $250,000. In 1996, "Sand Dunes At Sunset, Atlantic City" by Tanner was acquired for the White House art collection by Bill and Hillary Clinton from the grandniece of the artist for $100,000.

In conducting their investigation the Foxes are seeking information from all reliable sources. They have been in contact with Kathleen Bernhardt of Chicago Art Source and the Michener Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, which was also involved with the Philadelphia School art collection. The collection contains paintings by Pennsylvania Impressionists Edward Redfield and Walter Emerson Baum.

"The teachers and other school workers in Philadelphia are understandably upset about this missing art," said Sue Fox. "It was beautiful to look at. It was part of their lives for many years. Some of the paintings hung on walls, which are now empty. Others were found in storage rooms and basements. And now it's all gone. This art deserves to be rediscovered, to be properly restored, and publicly displayed."

"The Art Hunters Handbook" contains other stories about valuable art found in public schools, as well as the Bill Cosby collection and Barack Obama's dramatic changes to the White House art collection.

Share article on social media or email:

View article via:

Pdf Print