No Finders, Keepers for Art Thieves

In 2009, socialite Joanne King Herring learned from the Art Loss Register, a company that operates an international database of stolen and missing works of art that a New York man had tried to sell a painting which she purchased entitled, Portrait of a Man, by Scottish artist Sir Henry Raeburn, at Sotheby's auction house.

Herring had a Christie's auction catalog and receipt showing she bought the painting in 1980 — along with a 1986 police report filed when it and several other paintings disappeared from a framing shop. The consignor, Geoffrey Rice, said he had bought the painting in 1984 or 1985 at Hart Galleries, a now-defunct Houston auction house, but produced no evidence to support his claim.

Because Rice refused to cede ownership of the painting, Sotheby's, which had pulled it from a planned auction, couldn't release it to Herring without a civil court order. So her attorney filed suit in January 2010 to get one.

The case remained in legal limbo until the Jan. 3 court date. Herring was about to leave for the courthouse when she got a call saying Rice had agreed to return the painting.

Now that the case has been resolved in her favor, Herring hopes its sale will raise maximum dollars for her plan to simultaneously provide Afghan villages with clean water, sustainable food sources, basic health care, modern schools and jobs. She sees that approach as the only way to achieve lasting peace in the war-ravaged country.

In the meantime, Herring hopes stories like hers show art thieves that, "There's no 'finders, keepers' in the art world."

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