Painting stolen in 1989 recently sold for £62,500 but remains in limbo

Painting stolen in 1989 recently sold for £62,500 but remains in limbo
Portrait of Mary Emma Jones by Emma Sandys. Courtesy of Christie's.
Marketplace  -   Trafficking

On 11 July 2018, the auctioneer’s gavel fell selling the ‘recently rediscovered’ Emma Sandys 1874 painting for £62,500 (estimated at £20,000 to £30,000) in Christie’s Victorian Pre-Raphaelite and British Impressionist Art sale. This sale, however, would not prove to be an easy or quick process for neither the anonymous buyer, seller, or auction house.

Portrait of Mary Emma Jones by Emma Sandys. Courtesy of Christie’s.

The story of this painting by British painter Emma Sandys or Norwich, who was somewhat overshadowed by her brother, Frederick’s artistic success, became particularly interesting 30 years ago. In 1998, Sandys’s painting of her brother’s wife, Mary Emma Jones, was shown on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. Valued then at £20,000 by the television show, the artwork was stolen from its owner’s house in Great Yarmouth, England just a week after the programme aired.

Stolen before the onset of social media or the creation of the Art Loss Register, the theft of the artwork was reported in the local paper at the time but it went relatively unnoticed outside of Norfolk. The painting and its theft quickly fell to the wayside. That is until July of this year when the work resurfaced and was sold at Christie’s by an anonymous seller to an anonymous buyer. The emergence of the painting and its subsequent sale has sparked a legal battle between Christie’s and Jan Davey, the daughter of the painter’s late owner.

A cutting from the Eastern Daily Press on January 18, 1988, covering the theft. Photo courtesy of Archant.

It is reported that Christie’s offered Davey and her family £10,000 in exchange for their cooperation in signing a confidentiality agreement and surrendering their claim to the painting. However, Davey rejected the offer citing that it is too little compensation given that the artwork was valued at £20,000 in 1988 and recently for £62.500.

Seemingly a straight forward matter is made difficult as Christie’s maintains that the artwork was not reported on the Art Loss Register. The auction house, in a statement, has said that it would not partake in the sale of a knowingly stolen artwork. The Art Loss Register is reported to have been checked by Christie’s prior to the sell and the painting was, in fact, not listed. Unfortunately, though, the theft of the artwork pre-dates the onset of the Art Loss Register by one year and therefore would not be included in it.

The painting is simply described as ‘recently rediscovered’ in the lot information provided by the auction house. However, there is no information disclosing who the private collector is that has sold the artwork.

A settlement is said to be in process between the relevant parties, though this does not include Christie’s, directly, to decide on and provide the funds for a resolution to the matter. The painting will not be released by the auction house until this legal matter is cleared. Meaning, that for now and the foreseeable future, Sandys’s painting of her sister-in-law will continue in a state of limbo.