In 2004, the Philadelphia school system called in expert art appraisers from Chicago to evaluate a collection of more than 1,000 paintings bought by school principals in the early 1900's. Some of the paintings were publicly displayed, but many were found in storage rooms and basements, often in need of repair or restoration. Although some school officials called for a committee to figure out the best way to handle the collection, which included creating a museum or possibly selling the art to help defray the financial problems of the Philadelphia school system, others in power quiety scooped up all of the art and transferred it to storage facilities in hidden locations.
The controller of Philadelphia launched an investigation in 2007, Lithophane and learned that the paintings (which had been inventoried) were not public displayed, and some 85 paintings seemed to be missing.
Les and Sue Fox, art experts, and New York Times bestselling authors of The Art Hunters Handbook, have launched their own investigation into this matter. However, we have received no help from current and former Philadelphia school officials who seem to be content to let sleeping dogs lie. Except that some of the paintings are worth $500,000 apiece including a painting by famous American artist Thomas Eakins.
The Foxes are very concerned about the whereabouts of the missing art, and would appreciate help from anyone who knows influential people in Philadelphia. You can read more details of this story by Googling: $30 million Philadelphia art collection missing.
This is a very serious situation. And because it affects school children, we hope that we can get some support to find out what's happening behind the scenes.
Here is part of a press release we issue earlier in 2012:
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.