A Missing Painting Turns Up, but the Case Isn’t Closed
By WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM and REBECCA WHITE
Published: September 15, 2010
Its discovery was nearly as strange as its disappearance.
For more than a month, the whereabouts of “Portrait of a Girl,” a painting by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot of a young girl with a lace collar, a teal skirt and mournful eyes, has been shrouded in intrigue.
The circumstances surrounding its apparent loss led to a lawsuit that brought attention to a convicted art swindler who claimed ownership of the painting, an ex-con middleman who said he got drunk and lost the portrait, and a co-owner who sued him over the missing work. It then came to involve an F.B.I. agent who has a record of recovering stolen artworks.
A federal inquiry has begun, and one of the painting’s co-owners, the convicted art swindler, has been arrested on charges not directly related to the loss of the painting. But the essential mystery — what happened to the painting — remained unsolved.
Then, on Sunday, the artwork suddenly materialized — under the arm of a Fifth Avenue doorman, who took it to a police station house on the Upper East Side.
The doorman, Franklin Puentes, told the authorities that he had had the 19th-century portrait, which officials say was appraised recently at between $500,000 and $700,000, since the hours after it disappeared — tucked inside his locker, in the basement of the building where he works.
Mr. Puentes told the police that he had found the painting in the bushes outside that building, 995 Fifth Avenue, after arriving for his shift on July 29, the officials said.
He thought it might belong to a resident of the building and tried to find the owner, said one official, quoting from a police report that recounts Mr. Puentes’s visit to the 19th Precinct station house. But he had no success and safeguarded the artwork in his locker.
Some days later, he went on a three-week vacation, and a short time after he returned, he learned of news accounts of the missing Corot painting, the official said.
“I feel very bad; I have no comments,” Mr. Puentes said after work on Wednesday. “As far as I’m concerned, I did what the law required.”
Mr. Puentes’s account could lend some credence to the story told by the middleman, James Carl Haggerty, who, according to the lawsuit, said he had had too much to drink and lost the artwork after he had shown it to a potential buyer at the Mark Hotel on East 77th Street on July 28.
Mr. Puentes’s daughter, Felipina Castillo, 47, said her father was questioned by detectives for about seven hours after he brought the painting to the station house. While he was there, his wife called his cellphone.
“He tells her he’s being investigated by the police,” Ms. Castillo said. “He just mentioned something about a picture.”
She said that when Mr. Puentes returned from vacation in Florida, he spoke to a friend about the painting, and the friend told him about the media coverage of the missing Corot.
“He had no clue what he had in his hands,” Ms. Castillo said. “He’s very sad now. He’s a little worried.”
Investigators believe that Mr. Puentes, who has worked at 995 Fifth Avenue for 30 years, is telling the truth, several of the officials said. His building is on the corner of East 81st Street, about five blocks from the hotel where the painting was last seen with Mr. Haggerty.
Mr. Haggerty was captured on video surveillance footage leaving the hotel with the painting, which is a shade larger than 9 inches by 12 inches, about 12:50 a.m. on July 29, the lawsuit said. But video recordings of the lobby of his apartment building showed he did not have it when he arrived home about 2:30 a.m., according to the lawsuit, which was brought by Kristyn Trudgeon, who has identified herself as a co-owner of the painting.
Much remains unclear about the events surrounding the disappearance of the painting, as well as the filing of Ms. Trudgeon’s lawsuit — and its withdrawal — and the criminal investigation that grew out of the news articles generated by the litigation.
Ms. Trudgeon said she was not convinced that Mr. Haggerty was blameless.
“He left the painting on the side of the road?” she said on Wednesday. “Haggerty’s been lying through his teeth.”
The other co-owner of the painting, Thomas A. Doyle, was arrested last Thursday on federal wire fraud conspiracy charges, according to a criminal complaint filed in the case by James P. Wynne, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who pursues art theft and related crimes.
The complaint accuses Mr. Doyle of trying to defraud an investor in the painting and lying about its value, according to a news release announcing the charges, which were brought by the office of the United States attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara.
Ms. Trudgeon said she told Mr. Doyle, who is in federal custody, that the painting had been recovered.
“He said, ‘That’s the best news I’ve heard all day,’ ” she said.
She said she met Mr. Doyle in March and was unaware of his past until a few months ago. She described him in an earlier interview as “trying to make the straight and narrow.”
“I’m glad the painting is found,” she said on Wednesday. “I’m glad it’s not in the Dumpster.”
A version of this article appeared in print on September 16, 2010, on page A27 of the National edition.