Max Moran is still looking for his East Chop Light. John Alley in his top hat and tails, too. But Kelli, a nude painted on Lucy Vincent Beach, turned up at the Edgartown thrift store.
Mr. Moran is a plein air artist, and since 2008 he has been looking for 250 pieces of artwork stolen from his Mattituck, N.Y., studio. The thefts took place when Mr. Moran was subletting his studio. After discovering the art was missing, he registered his paintings with the FBI and Interpol.
This weekend, Mr. Moran will come to the Vineyard to pick up the 10th piece of recovered artwork.
“This was a very special painting,” he said. “There’s one thing I always hold on to and those are portraits and figurative things. I rarely ever sold them. Kelli was one of them. She was visiting from Ohio and we went to Lucy Vincent Beach. It was one of those perfect days.”
Mr. Moran lived and painted on the Vineyard between 1984 and 1994 before moving to New York. A favorite painting spot was off William street in Vineyard Haven.
After the thefts, Mr. Moran hired FBI special agent Robert Wittman to locate a number of the stolen works. Mr. Wittman was the founder of the FBI’s art theft division and author of the book Priceless.
“There is an epidemic going on with art crime in this country and it opened my eyes,” Mr. Moran said. “A great deal of it is showing up in various collections.”
“I’m not a very famous artist,” Mr. Moran added. “I’m not worth millions of dollars, but I’m also a living artist and who better to speak for dead artists? We often misplace priorities on heroes.”
Some paintings that have turned up have had forged signatures. On others the signature had been stripped from the painting. Mr. Moran said sometimes the forged signatures would be of more significant artists, making the paintings on the secondary market more valuable. Mr. Moran’s work has been found in Texas, Ohio, Kentucky and Brazil. He said there are suspects, but charges have not been filed.
Mr. Moran said the national average on secondary market paintings is an additional 7 to 10 per cent on the dollar.
Susan Martone discovered Mr. Moran’s mural of Kelli hidden in a stack of other paintings at the Edgartown thrift store. She paid $25 for the piece and placed it in the dining room of her Mendon home.
Interested in purchasing more of Mr. Moran’s work, she visited his website to learn more about the painter. That’s when she found the link to “stolen work” on his page and saw her painting listed among countless others.
The statute of limitations on art stolen from a museum is 20 years, thanks to a bill sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy after the famous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist in 1990. However, art stolen from a house only extends to six years. Mrs. Martone was not required to report the stolen painting.
“I didn’t feel comfortable keeping it in my house, it’s not mine,” she said. “I couldn’t get it back fast enough.”
“It was really hard to bring it back,” she added. “I loved her, but it had a new meaning.”
Mrs. Martone gave the painting to Det. Sgt. Chris Dolby at the Edgartown police department, who described the art crime world as “the wild west.”
“It’s crazy,” Mr. Dolby said. “I feel badly for Max with the statute of limitations he’s running up against. It’s a whole different world.”
When Mr. Dolby was unable to get in touch with Mr. Moran, he contacted the FBI art theft unit, where he was passed on to special agent Wittman. Mr. Dolby said he did some investigating into the theft but didn’t come up with much.
“This place is unique in that there are a lot of houses and a lot of people with a lot of money. You never know what kind of art you’re going to find,” he said. “Art work changes hands, and sometimes it’s hot and they don’t know it.”
This weekend, Mr. Moran will pick up his painting which has been secured in the evidence room of the Edgartown police department. Afterwards he will head to the Edgartown Lighthouse to paint the scene as a thank you to Mrs. Martone. “Finding that painting of all paintings was really special,” Mr. Moran said.