He made his name as a fraud fighter, but Brian Miller’s legacy at one of Washington’s biggest bureaucracies could be as champion of the arts — stolen art in particular.
Mr. Miller, the outgoing inspector general at the General Services Administration, conducted investigations that exposed lavish spending at government conferences, investigations that generated headlines and wrought reforms across federal government. But as he packed up his office on his last day at work Friday, he spent more time reflecting on his unlikely role in recovering the American taxpayers’ lost and purloined art collection.
Since taking office nearly a decade ago, Mr. Miller has beefed up a component of the inspector general’s office he didn’t know existed when he was nominated in 2004. The investigative unit is responsible for scouring eBay, antique shows and auction houses to track down lost and stolen New Deal artwork commissioned by the federal government.
Paid for by the Works Progress Administration, thousands of pieces of artwork — some valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars — have disappeared over the years, left forgotten in dusty attics or tossed into heaps of unwanted yard sale and flea market finds.
The New Deal artwork was produced during the Great Depression. The federal Works Progress Administration paid artists $42 per week as long as they turned in at least one finished piece a week.
Among the artists and craftsmen who participated were Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Grant Wood, Arshile Gorky and Ben Shahn.
“The U.S. government recognized the arts community as part of the economy and they made sure they set up these programs to support the artists, so it was really the golden age of federal patronage of the arts,” said Paul Manoguerra, curator of the Gonzaga University Jundt Art Museum.
“There were thousands of works, and it was probably a logistical nightmare to track each of these individually,” he said.
Over time, he said, people probably felt almost entitled to help themselves to works that had hung in government buildings for decades.
“You’ve been looking at a painting on your wall and nobody’s ever checked on it and it makes you wonder if it could be yours.”
In most cases, sellers have little idea that their expensive pieces belong to the federal government, said Mr. Miller, who expanded efforts to recoup lost art. Once recovered, the art typically is put back into public view through long-term loans with museums or other institutions.
Through a series of investigations, the inspector general’s office and the GSA’s fine arts program have recovered at least 78 pieces of government-owned New Deal art, including a dozen pieces by M. Evelyn McCormick valued at nearly $1.1 million.
The John Sloan painting “14th Street at 6th Avenue” hung in the office of Sen. Royal S. Copeland of New York until his death in 1938. Decades later, a congressional staffer spotted it in a pile of trash and brought it home.
After the staffer died, the painting turned up on television’s “Antiques Road Show,” where it was appraised at $750,000.
“Gulls at Monhegan” by Andrew Winter had hung in the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica, Mr. Miller said.