- Associated Press - Sunday, May 22, 2016

GEORGETOWN, S.C. (AP) - The famous horse paintings by Alfred Munnings went galloping off in the middle of the night in late July 2003, along with several important folio prints by John James Audubon and works by artist Louis Aston Knight.

It was a horrific loss, and the Belle W. Baruch Foundation quickly initiated an investigation into the crime at its Hobcaw Barony. It was thought at the time that the stolen artwork was worth in excess of $2 million. Foundation attorney Tom Tisdale quickly registered the inventory with the National Stolen Art File, an FBI database.

The Georgetown County sheriff and the FBI identified a suspect and managed to recover many other items that belonged to the foundation at the start of their investigation, but the valuable paintings and prints have remained missing.

Until now.

On April 27, the foundation’s executive director, George Chastain received a phone call from Ivy Auctions in Laurens. John Allen Ivy was on the line.

“I think we have your paintings,” Ivy said. The auction house had received the art from “a hoarder” in Columbia who had recently died.

Chastain, naturally, was skeptical.

“Over the years we had received a number of tips, none had ever panned out,” he said.

This time, though, was different. The Munnings paintings, seven Audubon prints and an engraving by James Watson called “North County Mail” all had been consigned to the auction house by an estate.

“When they came in, I recognized they were good paintings,” Ivy said. Standard procedure is to have such artworks authenticated, and to make sure they’re not stolen.

When Ivy’s colleague Frazer Pajak arrived to take photographs for the auction house’s catalogue, he recognized the three Munnings paintings right away. Pajak knew of the missing art pieces and was familiar with the house in which they once hung.

“He was extremely excited about it,” Ivy recalled.

They went online and quickly discovered they were in possession of the stolen Audubons, too. Ivy called Chastain. Then he called the FBI. Arrangements were made for Chastain to meet Ivy that Friday, accompanied by FBI agent Matt Jacobson and Tisdale, the foundation’s attorney.

Cover of darkness

Hobcaw Barony, owned by the Belle W. Baruch Foundation, is a 17,000-acre wildlife preserve near Georgetown that once was a vacation home to financier Bernard M. Baruch. His daughter Belle left the property in trust for use by South Carolina universities. The University of South Carolina operates a marine lab on the plantation; Clemson University operates a forest lab.

On July 30, 2003, foundation employee Samuel McIntosh, who lived in the Bellefield House on the property, was forced to move out. After 11 years as curator overseeing the Bellefield House and Hobcaw House, McIntosh had been dismissed from his job.

“He was clearly not happy with this situation,” wrote investigator Tom Digsby in an incident report. “The night of the theft was the last night that he would be living in the house.”

His friend Roger Streeter was helping him move. Streeter had spent most of the day shuttling McIntosh’s possessions to a home in Kingstree. The two men spent the night in the Bellefield House, but McIntosh had forgotten the key, so Streeter entered the building through a window then let in his friend, according to the incident report.

Several people had been going in and out that day and the next morning. The house showed no signs of forced entry. The artwork, some of which hung on the walls, some of which was stored in a closet, was discovered missing around 9 a.m. July 31.

Streeter told authorities he was awakened during the night by the sound of four-wheelers or dirt bikes outside, but thought nothing of it and went back to sleep.

McIntosh told investigators he had adjusted the air conditioning at about 3 a.m. and one of the stolen works was still hanging on the wall, 3 inches from the thermostat.

In the morning, movers were in and out of the house, raising the possibility that the artwork was inadvertently packed and relocated.

McIntosh agreed to take a polygraph test, but then balked, saying he needed to consult his attorney, according to the incident report. Streeter, too, agreed to a polygraph test but reneged, saying he had been threatened by someone who insisted Streeter keep his mouth shut.

The investigation continued in fits and starts. On Aug. 20, authorities arrived at McIntosh’s Kingstree home to serve a complaint and search the property. They knocked at the door repeatedly but occupants inside did not respond. Sheriff’s deputies donned raid vests and forced entry. Hobcaw employees identified and recovered the stolen print “Sporting Life” by John Leache, whose estimated value was about $12,000. Other items thought to belong to the foundation also were reclaimed.

On Sept. 4, McIntosh was charged with four counts of breach of trust with fraudulent intent, one count of receiving stolen goods and one count of filing a false police report, according to Georgetown County records. Later that month he was sentenced to three years of probation after pleading no contest.

But the Munnings portrait and two studies and the Audubon prints eluded them.

Streeter died last month. McIntosh lives in Williamsburg County.

Reclaimed

“Belle on Souriant,” a large 39x36-inch portrait of Belle Baruch on her beloved horse, along with the related studies in oil, were recovered late last month, thanks to the call Chastain received from John Ivy. The auctioneer said the family that consigned the art to him was immensely helpful and clearly ignorant of the dramatic backstory.

Chastain said the three Munnings paintings appear to be in good condition, though he has arranged for a restorer and appraiser to examine them. Together they could be worth around $2 million.

Some of the Audubon prints did not fare so well, he said. “They suffered while they were in hiding.” A conservator soon will be working on them. The prints collectively could be worth $400,000.

Six paintings by Knight - four watercolor and two oil representations of Hobcaw Barony - remain at large.

Rhett DeHart, U.S. attorney in Charleston, has been working the case since 2005, until it fizzled out. Though a big arrest was never made, the investigation nevertheless proved successful, he said.

“It scared them into inaction, which ultimately let the paintings (come back),” DeHart said. “Not too many criminal investigations (into stolen art) end well, and this one did.”

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Information from: The Post and Courier, https://www.postandcourier.com

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