The Case of the Forgotten Canvas and the Third Man - Part 1

Local History
Gerald Bernstein
Gerald Bernstein, curator at the Spencer Museum at the University of Kansas in Lawrence

In 1878, Jean Campinéanu traveled from his home in Bucharest, Romania, to Paris. While there, Campinéanu visited his uncle, Dr. Georges de Bellio.

Dr. de Bellio was a homeopathic physician. He had left Romania nearly 30 years before, and had settled in Paris, where he worked at the Hahnemann Hospital, and became a member of the Société Médicale Homœpathique de France.

Besides his work as a homeopath, de Bellio had one other pursuit that filled his time.

He became an avid collector of art—particularly the work of the artists in the newly emerging Impressionist movement. He owned paintings by Pierre-August Renoir, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Alfred Sisley, and Camille Pissaro. Giovanni Boldini painted de Bellio’s portrait, and Renoir painted a portrait of de Bellio’s daughter, Victorine.

Many painters were de Bellio’s patients, and the homeopath would often do business in trade, accepting works of art in exchange for his services.

When Campinéanu came to visit his uncle, de Bellio probably took a great deal of pleasure in showing his growing collection to his nephew. Perhaps Campinéanu, upon seeing the paintings, mentioned that he was thinking of having a portrait done of his daughter. Perhaps the uncle suggested Manet. Whatever may have led to it, Dr. de Bellio brought the artist and the nephew together, and they agreed that Manet would paint the portrait.

If you do a Google search (or Bing, or whatever), you will find a certain confusion as to Campinéanu’s daughter’s name. A lot of the reproductions today—cards, posters, etc.—give her name as Lina. She is also called Lisa and Lise; a few decades ago it was Line (the E is not silent).

By the end of 1878 Manet had finished painting Lina/Lisa/Line—both versions.

The final version, the one the Campinéanu family took into its possession, is now in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum here in Kansas City. It shows a young girl, almost smiling, arms loosely crossed (and covered in fore sleeves), fingers to elbows, resting lightly atop the arm of a chair. She looks ever so slightly down, just to the viewer’s (or the artist’s) left, wide-eyed with interest, studiously ignoring us. Nothing adorns her neck, and her brushed bangs stop about three quarters of the way down her forehead. She wears a light blue bow on the upper right side of her head, dark blonde hair pulled loosely to the back, and her light blue dress, trimmed in white lace, has slipped off her left shoulder.

The earlier version, a kind of sketch in oil, looks like it was composed much more quickly. The girl sits in the armchair, again looking just to our left, but ignoring our eyes this time instead of our arms. She wears the same fore sleeves and the same dress, though this time her right shoulder lies bared, and her arms rest to her sides as she relaxes against the back of a small loveseat. Her face is more relaxed, and she is wearing a necklace that matches the color of her dress.

Charles E. Curry was one of the movers and shakers in Kansas City Real Estate. At one point he owned the New York Life Building, where Baltimore forms a T intersection with 9th Street. It’s less than a block from where I now sit typing.

Curry and his wife donated the earlier, oil-sketched painting to the Spencer Museum at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

It’s the one that was stolen.

We’re not really sure exactly when the theft took place.

On August 31, 1962, though, some people started to notice.

The painting’s home was on the second floor of the museum, which was some distance from the staff offices. Different people had noticed an empty frame hanging on the wall, some even recollecting that it was the site of the Manet, but assumed the painting itself had been taken elsewhere for cleaning.

This was not really strange, and the staff had been very busy for two weeks. A large traveling exhibit was scheduled to open in the basement gallery that week, and the preparation for this exhibit commanded the major focus of the staff’s time, keeping them in the basement.

The location was rather remote, and the thief had a good view of the near side of the double staircase that led to the second floor.

Around 1:30 Friday afternoon, Craig Craven and William Ittman, two student assistants in the museum who were inspecting the upstairs galleries, came upon the empty frame. They immediately sought out Gerald Bernstein, the museum’s curator, and told him what they had discovered.

Both Irva Elliott, a museum housekeeper, and Professor Ian Loram, who taught German, later confirmed that they had noticed the empty frame Friday morning, but they were among those who thought the painting was being cleaned.

Bernstein went to examine the frame, finding that the thief had cut the painting with a razor sharp blade, slicing tightly against the frame, so the outer part of the canvas that actually touched the frame was still attached, a few threads sticking out from one corner. This would allow the thief to roll up the painting (which measured 23 by 17.5 inches), hide it in his or her clothing, and simply walk out the main entrance to the museum, very possibly without encountering anyone else.

The fact that the wooden stairway steps squeaked a lot when anyone stepped on them probably helped the thief as well.

Bernstein immediately ordered the printing of leaflets with a picture of the painting and the label "STOLEN" (to be mailed on Saturday to all major U.S. art dealers). He then started calling several of the big dealers. He told Robert K. Sanford of the Kansas City Times, "I can’t see how it would be possible to sell the painting in this country for anything near its value. No dealer would touch it."

Perhaps to prove to a prospective buyer that the painting had actually been stolen, the thief also took the clear plastic label that identified it.

Craven and Ittman were not guards. The museum didn’t have any guards. The administration had, that term, received funding to hire student guards, but it was very early in the term, and they had not yet started hiring.

They may have felt prompted to hire the guards because the museum had lost two items to thieves the preceding school year. One was a bronze Roman figurine, and the other was an Italian toad from the 17th century that had resided in the garden of the museum. Since both of these had been returned, though, their theft had been considered pranks rather than major crimes.

Bernstein had to take point for the museum because the thief had hit while the museum director, Marilyn Stokstad was on vacation in Michigan.

Besides the Lawrence Police Department and those from other nearby cities, the university notified the Douglas County Sheriff and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation also came into the picture.

The next day, September 2, the Times reported that following the news of the theft, the Spencer was inundated with phone calls. Unfortunately, all of them were from the sympathetic and the curious. Regarding the calls, Bernstein shared that "We have received no information on the whereabouts of the painting, however."

The empty frame still hung on the wall. The police had not yet examined it for fingerprints, and Bernstein said that he was "not very hopeful about finding" any. He did "hope that the person who took the painting will have second thoughts about it and get it back to us." Though the painting was "unique and irreplaceable" to the museum, it could have "little monetary value to the person who has it now."

And, for the public anyway, that’s how things stood for the next few months.

A later article about the theft said that there were many paintings in the same gallery as the Manet, but the only one of similar value was by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and it was a much larger work.

This same article said that there were reports of a number of thefts from small museums during this same summer, one estimate putting it at a minimum of 50, and perhaps in excess of 75. The week before the realization that the Manet had been taken, two paintings (neither worth as much as the Manet) had been stolen from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

The insurance company that covered the Spencer offered a $2,000 reward for the return of the Manet, and the arrest of the thief. The FBI was brought in on the case, as will be explained below.

About two weeks after Craven and Ittman had discovered the theft of the painting, Bernstein received a call from Richard Brown, director of the Los Angeles County Museum. Here’s where you need to get your scorecard out to keep track of things.

A Los Angeles lawyer had called Brown, saying he (the lawyer) spoke on behalf of an acquaintance, who spoke on the behalf of a third man. This third man had told the second man, who passed it on to the lawyer, that he (the third man) had found a painting that he (the third man) thought was the one stolen from the Spencer. The lawyer said that the third man had told the acquaintance that he (the third man) understood that there was a reward (for the painting).

The lawyer put forward the third man’s proposition (as heard from the acquaintance)—

Continued in Part 2...

About the Author

Dr. John Arthur Horner of the Missouri Valley Room has a Ph.D. in Dramatic Art from UC-Santa Barbara, as well as a deep love of history. He is an award-winning playwright and member of the Dramatists Guild of America. He lives in Independence with his wife, two pianos, and their multitude of books.

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