Estate Recovers Three Works Stolen 30 years Ago (UPDATE)

The Worcester Telegram and Gazette reported yesterday that three works stolen more than 30 years ago will be returned to the original owner’s estate according to a Federal District Court ruling in Rhode Island. Recovered were The Shore of Lake Geneva by French painter Gustave Courbet, Lady as Shepherdess by William Hamilton and In the Sun by American impressionist Childe Hassam:
The paintings were stolen by three armed, masked men the night of July 1 into early July 2, 1976, from the home of Mae Persky, 520 Grafton St. The three men cut the telephone wires to the home, bound Ms. Persky, her nurse companion and caretaker and ransacked the home. They stole the paintings, furs and other valuables. The roughly two-hour robbery ended with one of the robbers stating, “Give us an hour to get away or we’ll come back and burn the …. place to the ground,” according to the police report. The paintings had been purchased in 1945 by Mrs. Persky’s husband, Abraham Persky. The insurance company for the Persky estate paid $45,000 on the policy for the three paintings. OneBeacon Insurance Co. is the “successor-in-interest” to the insurance company at the time of the robbery, Commercial Union Assurance. Mrs. Persky, whose husband was the former president of the Worcester Knitting Co., left the paintings to Ms. Yoffie and her husband, William Yoffie, in her will. he died Aug. 21, 1979. She was 86 at the time of the robbery, according to news reports. Mr. Yoffie was president of Worcester Knitting Co. and a trustee of the Abraham S. Persky Charitable Trust. He left the interest in the paintings to his wife when he died April 2007. For years, the paintings remained missing. They resurfaced last year when Patrick Conley went to have them authenticated by a Newport, R.I., art dealer. Mr. Conley had received the three paintings from his brother William Conley as collateral for $22,000 in loans in 1998 and 1999. Because William Conley never repaid his brother, Patrick Conley kept the paintings as part of their written loan agreement. It is unclear how antiques dealer William Conley obtained the paintings. When the paintings were determined to be stolen, the FBI took custody of them and the legal battle began. In previous interviews, Patrick Conley said he had no idea the paintings were stolen.

I haven’t been able to track down the judgment yet, so I can’t comment on the legal issues involved. I can say with some certainty that this is a classic stolen art dispute between an original owner (or her successor in interest) and a subsequent purchaser or acquirer who purports to be in good faith. This is a dispute between two relatively innocent parties, and jurisdictions have very different handling of this kind of situation — not so much in the US or the UK, but in civilian systems like Iitaly or Switzerland purchasers can acquire good title to these stolen works.


Donn Zaretsky notes that this was seemingly not a judgment but rather the court signed off on a settlement agreement among the parties, ending the dispute, which has not been made public. He wants to know “what did the insurance company get in return?”

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