(CN) — A researcher based in the United Kingdom was scrolling through the exhibition catalogue of a U.S. museum when he spotted something he and his team had been looking for — a piece of art stolen 25 years ago from a famous tennis pro.
The Art Recovery International team member had stumbled upon “The Boating Party,” a painting by American Impressionist Robert Spencer (1879-1931).
Such discoveries are always the hope, Art Recovery International’s CEO Christopher Marinello explained in an interview Friday, as his researchers goes through auction sales, catalogues and exhibitions all over the world, searching for missing pieces of art listed with nonprofit Artive’s central database for recording stolen, looted, and missing works of art.
Adding to this find’s lore, Marinello noted that the piece had been stolen in 1995 from Gene Mako, a tennis hall of famer who won four Grand Slam doubles titles in the 1930s before becoming an art dealer in Los Angeles.
“In retirement he had amassed a collection of about 800 paintings,” Marinello explained of the late Mako, who was 97 when he died in 2013. “He wanted to donate them to Culver City, with the proviso that they would build a museum to house his artwork. Unfortunately the City Council rejected the proposal and never built the museum, and he had these paintings stored in two warehouses, which is very typical of a lot of art.”
Somewhere along the way, four of Mako’s Robert Spencer works were stolen. The Los Angeles Police Department — still hunting for a handful of Spencer paintings, according to its database of stolen art — theorized it was an inside job. Art Recovery, on behalf of Mako’s insurer, worked with the LAPD to coordinate the recovery of the painting.
It’s not uncommon for stolen art to resurface after a number of decades underground, noted Marinello, who is an attorney. “We either see two scenarios in our work: stolen art resurfaces fairly quickly within weeks or months, or there is a big gap like 10, 15, 20 or 30 years,” he said.
Praising databases that track stolen art, Marinello said that the digital age has made is more difficult for thieves to resell stolen goods and cash out.
“In the old days, you could steal something from the U.S. and it would end up in the U.K. and no one would ever know,” he said.
Now, word spreads across the world that something was stolen fairly quickly. It’s still possible to sell stolen works, but doing so relies on a buyer that fails to do their due diligence.
“Essentially, that’s what was done here is somebody bought this, not knowing it was stolen and remained in a collection for quite some time, but as with almost every work of fine art, it will one day, surface, and this surfaced when it was being exhibited at a museum in Pennsylvania,” he continued. In these scenarios, he added, purchasers of the stolen pieces lose the piece and get no compensation.
“Had the purchaser checked with the LAPD detail, they would have told them right away that this was a stolen work of art, and it’s been on the LAPD website for 25 years,” he said.
Marinello estimated that about 90–95% “of the cases we work on we get the artwork back, but you know only a few people have ever been caught.”
Pamella Seay, an art collector and professor of justice studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, said in an interview Friday that the long period of time this piece was underground for made sense.
“This one would be recognized,” she said. “People would see it and report it.”
Impressionist Robert Spencer was a fairly well-known artist for his time. He exhibited widely in the U.S. at institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Although not familiar with the value of “The Boating Party” in particular, Spencer’s other works sell today for anywhere from $3,000 to $150,000, Seay added.
“When he was working, his works were very well-received and highly recognized,” she said, theorizing that the fact that “The Boating Party” was stolen could potentially increase its value.
“It adds some panache to the story,” Seay explained. “I think that that does enhance the price because you’re looking at something that obviously somebody really wanted, so they stole it. It’s got it’s got that kind of a sex appeal for art.”
“The Boating Party” has been returned to Mako’s family. As a tennis player, Mako was famed for his serve and powerful smashes. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1973 and the USC Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999.
Mako turned to art after shoulder injuries affected his tennis career. He also served in World War II and owned a tennis court construction business.