Nearly two years ago, I wrote several articles about the death of William M. V. Kingsland. He died intestate (without a will) and with an apartment crammed with rare works of art. You can see my earlier articles at http://tinyurl.com/6gjapa. Now it seems that much of the artwork was stolen.
After winding through the legal system, a probate judge ordered that Kingsland's possessions be auctioned off and the proceeds held for a number of years, waiting for claims by heirs, if any. If the money is unclaimed, it will eventually be given to the State of New York.
Kingsland was a well-known figure among art houses and within Upper East Side high society. He seemed to be an expert on the genealogy of prominent local families. He also claimed to be from a high society family himself and sometimes told friends his middle initials stood for Milliken and Vanderbilt and that he lived on Fifth Avenue.
Investigators now know that his name at birth was Melvyn Kohn and that he was the son of Jewish refugees from Europe who lived in the Bronx. Kohn legally changed his name to William M. V. Kingsland when he was seventeen years old.
There was no Fifth Avenue address; he lived on the Upper East Side. Nor had Kingsland ever attended Harvard or been married to a French royal, as he had often claimed.
Kingsland's apartment was crammed with art, books, and other assorted items. There was barely enough room to sit down. His art collection contained about 300 pieces, including works by Alberto Giacometti, Pablo Picasso, Odilon Redon and John Singleton Copley. Paintings were stuffed under the bed, behind the couch, and elsewhere. He also had a bust by Giacometti, which has now been valued at about $1 million. Kingsland used it as a doorstop.
Problems arose when various pieces were transferred to Christie's auction house and listed in catalogs, complete with color photographs. Art experts started calling with reports that the various pieces had previously been stolen. For instance, the John Singleton Copley painting of the Second Earl of Bessborough was stolen from Harvard University in 1971. The bust by Giacometti that was Kingsland's doorstop has now been identified as stolen, as has a small still-life painting by Giorgio Morandi. The FBI has now identified 20 stolen pieces but suspects more of the remaining 137 pieces whose origins are not yet known also could be stolen.
Colin Stair of the Stair Galleries auction house in Hudson, New York, helped catalog the collection. He remarked, "The smaller the items were, the more likely they were to have been stolen."
There is a "story within a story" here as well. When the paintings were being transferred from Kingsland's apartment to the auction houses, two works by Picasso were stolen from the moving company's truck. The paintings were later recovered by the FBI, who then discovered that both paintings had originally been stolen from a New York gallery in 1967.
You can read more about this story at http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2008/aug/13/arttheft.art.