Amy Folk had always heard about the Bark Washington painting, which depicts the hunting of a school of whales. Ms. Folk joined Oysterponds Historical Society in Orient a few years after the painting mysteriously disappeared along with other artworks.
For the past 14 years, they have all remained missing.
The painting was reported stolen in March 2001, while the historical society’s Hallock Building was under construction. Also reported as taken at that time were a painting of the ship Jennie French Potter by Samual F. Badger and two whalebone busks — described as looking like “giant tongue depressors” — sometimes used as the ribs in corsets.
[Scroll down to see a photo of the Jennie French Potter painting and click here to view the FBI’s listing]
Shortly after the theft, someone who used to live in Orient purchased the Bark Washington from an East Marion antique shop for a few hundred dollars, Ms. Folk was told. That person, who has since moved to the Midwest, recently decided to look up the painting online and discovered through the FBI’s Stolen Art Database that it had been reported missing.
Following an FBI investigation, the Bark Washington painting was returned to its proper place last Wednesday, Sept. 30.
“It’s nice that things worked out,” said Ms. Folk, the manager of collections at the historical society. “Catching the bad guys would be even better.”
The FBI contacted Ms. Folk in the spring and told her the person who had the painting agreed to return it. She said two agents from the FBI’s New York Art Crime Team brought the painting out to Orient.
Ms. Folk, who said this was the first time in her 25-year career she’s worked with the FBI, said someone had attempted to rub off the painting’s accession number, which is used to identify artwork and was located on the back in the lower left corner.
As for who might have stolen it, that remains a mystery. The case is still under investigation, according to the FBI.
The FBI also hasn’t disclosed the name of the person who returned the painting or identified the antique store from which it was purchased, Ms. Folk said.
Orient resident Freddie Wachsberger, who was president of the historical society at the time, said in an interview this week that she believes the theft was “a crime of opportunity” because the building needed to be open while workers finished the renovations.
“What sounds funny to me is that somebody would steal something and take it a mile down the road to sell,” Ms. Wachsberger said. “I hated the fact that it happened on my watch. The appeal of this painting is it’s connected to a local whaling captain.”
The Bark Washington was the whaling ship of Capt. Edwin Peter Brown of Orient, Ms. Folk said.
Although it was painted in 1860 by an unknown artist at a time when whaling was less common, the sketch was drawn earlier by a South Fork sailor named Cornelius Payne. The oil painting was done on tin, which Ms. Folk described as very rare. The current value of the painting is unknown, she said.
Ms. Wachsberger said she believes the painting’s isn’t worth very much since it had been “overpainted” at one point, possibly by someone trying to touch it up.
“You don’t have many of these action shots and it has a kind of folk art charm to it,” she said. “We’re very happy to have it back. It certainly has a lot more value to us than it does financially.”
Ms. Folk said the historical society is accepting donations to help pay for restoration of the painting and hopes to have it on display this spring.
“Whoever had it was a smoker,” she said. “There’s some yellowing and a couple of chips, but it’s not bad.”
Ms. Folk said the FBI hopes publicity about the painting’s return will assist them in their other cases.
“We want to let people know it’s back so maybe someone will remember something,” she said. “We’re just interested in getting them back.”
Anyone with information on the stolen artwork is asked to call the FBI’s Art Crime Team at 212-384-1000 or submit a tip at tips.fbi.gov. Tipsters may remain anonymous, officials said.
To donate for the restoration of the Bark Washington painting, contact the historical society at 631-323-2480.
Top photo: Amy Folk (left), Oysterponds Historical Society collections manager, and Orient resident and former historical society president Freddie Wachsberger with the long-lost ‘Bark Washington’ painting. The FBI located the missing artwork and returned it last week.