Seminar Paper: William M. V. Kingsland and the Importance of Provenance

I’m publishing here a series of papers written by law students in my ‘Property, Heritage and the Arts’ seminar from the Fall of 2009. This paper was written by Michael Poché

William M. V. Kingsland and the  Importance of Provenance

1. Introduction

Nature, left undisturbed, so fashions her territory as to give it almost unchanging permanence of form, outline, and proportion, except when shattered by geologic convulsions. . . . In countries untrodden by man, the proportions and relative positions of land and water. . . are subject to change only from geological influences so slow in their operation that the geographical conditions may be regarded as constant and immutable. Man has too long forgotten that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste. . . But she has left it within the power of man irreparably to derange the combinations of inorganic matter and of organic life. . . man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords. . . [O]f all organic beings, man alone is to be regarded as essentially a destructive power….

George Perkins Marsh, The Earth as Modified by Human Action: Man and Nature [fn1]

When George Perkins Marsh first penned those words in 1874, he was speaking in his role as one of America’s first important environmentalists. Contrary to the prevailing notions of his contemporaries, Marsh felt that, rather than being owners of the earth – as in the traditional Abrahamic concept of property – we are in fact only stewards of the earth, here for a short time only, and that instead of practicing some supposed birthright over the land, we were instead bound by a birth “duty”, so to speak, to protect it.
Though his expertise was in the environment (as well as diplomacy and philology), Marsh may as well have been speaking about the art world; the philosophy of guardianship he espoused towards the Earth would serve us well as a basic model for how humankind should safeguard its cultural riches. One of the few things which can be said with some certainty about art is that nearly every culture throughout human history has spent time creating works which are largely decorative in nature; the big question is, “Why?” While we still do not possess an all-encompassing answer to that question, the question itself is strongly suggestive that the creative act, in its myriad forms, is some form primal human strategy, on par with survival, sustenance, procreation, etc.

It is here that the comparison to Marsh’s quotation becomes problematic; Marsh saw man as “. . . essentially a destructive power.”[fn2] This is true, but he is also the only consciously creative power as well. Because of this dual nature, it is important to ensure that our destructive tendencies do not overshadow our creative ones. Now, clearly, not every person has a creative (or rather, artistic) bent. For some of those who do not, art may be nothing more than a blank slate; some may be appreciators, either highly opinionated or more catholic in taste; but some have an almost hostile stance towards art, which could manifest itself in numerous ways.
Much environmental advocacy is practiced from a state of naiveté and pessimism; that is, we don’t know what the long range effects of our actions will be – and we are assuming that our actions and their effects will be negative – so a prudent course would be to treat our environment as cautiously as possible. And so it should be with our cultural heritage: because we don’t fully understand why people have always made art, it would behoove us to assume that the fact of its universality indicates its importance to our existence. As we are only stewards of this Earth, so too are we stewards of our cultural legacy.

One of the primary tools we have at our disposal to this end is that of provenance. Provenance acts as a sort of cultural lineage, or a chain of succession. It ensures the integrity and value of art, as well as provides a guidepost of authenticity. It is especially important when purchasing art; potential buyers need to be made aware of a piece’s particular history, and failure to be able to do so should be a big red flag to purchasers, be they newbies or long time connoisseurs.

So, what to say of someone who, despite an obvious love for art, so eradicates the provenance of, not one or a few, but of close to three hundred valuable pieces[fn3] that they end up languishing in the hands of the F.B.I., awaiting either return to their rightful owners or an uncertain fate on the auction block, where disinterested relations of the previous “owner” hope they will eventually end up?


2. The Mystery of William M. V. Kingsland

On March 21 2006, the body of William Milliken Vanderbilt Kingsland was discovered in his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, dead of a heart attack; he was later estimated to be 62 years of age. On April 13 of that same year, an article which appeared in The New York Sun painted a portrait of a man almost genetically enhanced to appear in the dictionary next to the entry for “eccentric” or “character:
With a wry Cheshire cat smile, Kingsland cut a striking figure among the interlocking worlds of historic preservationists, galleries, and the gavel set of New York auction houses. . . “The thing about Kingsland was that he was slightly annoyed that the 20th century had occurred.” . . . His particular metier was the minutiae of the lives in Upper East Side buildings over generations. . . [H]e arguably made his greatest contribution by piecing together connections between cemetery vault purchasers and their living descendants. . . This flaneur was known to stop friends on the sidewalk and seemed to have all day to talk. He did not appear to have to be anywhere unless he decided to be there. He had leisure to deliver correspondence personally, too. . . In successive apartments on East 78th and 72nd Streets, friends recalled floor to ceiling paintings, some stacked against each other more for protection than for show. Shelves of books competed for space with folded tapestries, bibelots, objets de vertu, snuffboxes, bronze items, and illuminated manuscripts peering out of boxes. . . Reliquaries may have been kept in the dishwasher, and a Giacometti used as a doorstop. While he said his East 72nd Street apartment was for storage, it is unclear where his primary residence was. . . Kingsland worked at Vito Giallo Antiques on Madison Avenue three days a week from 1986 to 1991. Singer Elton John was so enchanted with Kingsland that he left a blank check for him to fill out for 19th-century statues. Andy Warhol befriended Kingsland for a time. At lunchtime at the store, Kingsland ate two jars of Gerber baby food. . . A longtime preservationist, Tony Wood, said there was an “air of delightful mystery around him.” Though he said he had attended Groton, the school has no record of him.[fn4]

The stories about Kingsland go on and on: writing about art for Art/World and Art + Auction; he had reportedly once been married to French royalty[fn5]; alternatively, he claimed to have been descended from long dead French royalty[fn6]; as a young man he had attended Harvard University[fn7]; and on and on.

– – – – –
Of course, it was all too good to be true. The fact that during his lifetime he was known to have used the Giacometti he possessed as doorstop – a statute which was later estimated to be between $900,000 and $1,200,000 in value[fn8] – should have been a big warning flag to anyone who may have visited his home; perhaps they were too enchanted by his quirky charms to care. For his own good and that of his “fans”, it may be just as well that the unraveling of the Kingsland mystique only began after his death.
It began with the discovery shortly after his death that Kingsland had left no will, and at the time appeared to have no living relations. Then, just a few months after his death, it was discovered that Kingsland was not “William Milliken Vanderbilt Kingsland” but actually one Melvyn Kohn who lived, not on fashionable and tony Fifth Avenue as believed by those who knew him, but in fact a small, cramped apartment on 72nd Street. Two independent genealogical researchers, Leslie Corn and Roger Joslyn, apparently intrigued by the Kingsland/Kohn mystery, discovered that he had come, not from an aristocratic lineage as he asserted in life, but from refugee parents escaping from Europe; his father was from Austria and his mother was born in Poland. Rather than to the manor born, Melvyn Kohn was actually born at Park East Hospital in New York City in 1943. Unearthed records also reveal a more pedestrian education: rather than the upper-crust Groton Academy, Kohn actually graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 1959. Later, Kohn spent some time at the NYU College of Arts and Sciences; there appears to be no record of his graduating, however.[fn9]
Most unusual of all is the story of how the mythical “William M. V. Kingsland” came into being. In some bizarre attempt to raise their son beyond his station, Kohn’s parents filed a motion for a legal name change in the hopes that a more aristocratic appellation would assist him in his pursuit of becoming a writer. One early example of his writing was a letter sent to The New York Times when Kohn was only 18 years old. The subject? Nothing more than the controversy surrounding the status of the Elgin Marbles; the irony and prescience of this topic as it relates to the later controversy surrounding his legacy should be apparent.
Kingsland died intestate; accordingly, the art in his private collection – which had filled his 245 East 72nd Street apartment from top to bottom and included works by Picasso, Giacometti, Copley, Morandi, Redon, and Gorchov, among many others – was slated to be auctioned off by order of the Public Administrator for New York[fn10]. Christie’s auction house and the Stair Gallery were chosen for the task, but before the auctions began, both of the esteemed art merchants discovered the shocking truth: during the standard pre-sale research of the artworks, many were discovered to have been reported as stolen, with the thefts going back as far as the 1960s.

At this point in time, no authority has been able to state unequivocally that Kingsland himself actually stole the works in question; indeed, no would-be Thomas Crown has yet been tied to the alleged thefts, nor has the mode by which the works came to be in Kingsland’s possession. To further complicate matters, many who had reported the works as stolen in the first place have since died, lost interest, or have been unable to be either identified or found. The final twist was the revelation of previously unknown relations of Mr. Kingsland; an uncle and four cousins have now come forward, claiming themselves as rightful heirs to the Kingsland estate.

But is the art in question inheritable? Though not all of the pieces in the collection have been listed as stolen, the very presence of so many with questionable provenance throws the legitimacy of the entire estate into question. As it now stands, all of the works which have been positively identified as reported stolen are in the possession of the F.B.I., awaiting their true owners to come forward.

– – – – – – – – – –

Of course, the mystery and confusion surrounding the collection is wholly of Kingsland’s own doing. As a self-styled expert on art, Kingsland surely must have realized that acquiring such works outside of legitimate legal channels would lead to eventual controversy upon his death, and that the possible effects on the work could be negative. As a semi-famous genealogist, one would think that Kingsland would appreciate the importance of a sound succession. Finally, as an art lover, Kingsland should have understand the disservice he was doing to the works in his possession.

What motivated him? Was there some frustration on his part over never having accomplished the lofty artistic agenda set up for him by has parents when he was young? Was he simply an obsessive-compulsive pack rat who got a charge out of stealing art, with little concern for its intrinsic worth? These are questions we’ll never be able to answer fully. The one thing we can say, however, is that because of his actions, the majority of the works in his possession have been deprived of their rightful place in the hands of those who had originally possessed them, and that they now face an uncertain fate at the hands of distant relations who have yet to voice any concern for the art other than their own personal interest in it. To follow through on the analogy voiced earlier in this essay, Kingsland is something of a plunderer of the earth, perhaps one who thought that hoarding a small stash of the art world’s riches secured him some place of importance. Kingsland for too long denied the art in his possession its rightful place in our cultural landscape; by doing so, Kingsland in a sense defiled the very art he supposedly loved.

– – – – – – – – –

The great unknown in this debacle is the fate which awaits the Kingsland lode. The potential heirs of the collection have (at least) two options before them: on the one hand, they could blindly fight for ownership of the art and, if successful, simply sell to the highest bidder. The other option would be to recognize that their claim to the stolen property is tenuous at best. One can hope that they would recognize the injustice of profiting from the criminal acts of a wayward relation.

Though small, there is a chance that the heirs of the Kingsland collection will do right by the art, either in the form of an en masse donation or the establishment of some private trust to ensure for the future of the works. In an odd sense, the total worth of the collection as a whole may be greater than the sum of the parts. Despite the controversy surrounding the collection – or perhaps because of it – Kingsland’s stash is now a singular entity. The disruption caused to the provenance of the works by Kingsland’s mischief may now best be rectified by keeping the collection intact, thereby returning a bit of the natural order to them that misfortune had deprived them of. It would not be completely unprecedented for the Kingsland heirs to take such a action; at least once fairly contemporary example could serve as a model for such a course of action.

3. The Sisto Collection

In 1958, John Sisto, a native of Bari, Italy, immigrated to the United States. Accompanying him was a small collection of antiquities, mostly old documents. He became something of a self-styled expert in ancient Latin and, despite his lack of education, came to be called upon as an expert by various universities in assorted subjects. He began to periodically receive shipments from Italy of assorted antiquities, mostly from his father: documents such as letters from King Charles V and King Ferdinand II, a statue collection known as the Canosa artifacts, and at least two papal documents from 1500s-1600s.[fn11]

Over the ensuing years, Sisto’s collection grew to over 3,500 pieces – some dating back as far as the 500 B.C.[fn12] – and the collection came to fill his Berwyn, Illinois home in large trunks covering the floors, and all the way up to the ceiling… is this starting to sound familiar?[fn13]

Upon his death, Sisto’s son, Joseph Sisto – who already harbored misgivings regarding the origins and source of the collection for some time – contacted the local police, and later the F.B.I., over his suspicions. Out of the 3,500+ items in the collection, the F.B.I. determined that approximately 1,600 of the items had been illegally removed from Italy. During the course of his studies, the younger Sisto became aware of a treaty enacted by UNESCO in 1970 which asserts that items of cultural importance should be returned to their country of origin; to this end, he requested that the questionable property be repatriated back to Italy.[fn14]
There are some who question the validity of Italy’s claim to the property; art law attorney Peter Tompa feels that the repatriation is merely the latest in a cynical attempt by the Italian government to reacquire its lost artifacts, as opposed to any concerted effort to reclaim actual stolen property. [fn15] Tompa also indicts Italy for having what he calls an guilty until proven innocent mentality, and references a quote from The New York Times which states that Italy “. . . the general assumption is that someone is guilty until proven innocent. Trials — in the press and in the courts — are more often about defending personal honor than establishing facts, which are easily manipulated.”[fn16]

But let’s compare this to the Kingsland saga. On the one hand, a valuable collection of art – the majority of which has been positively identified as having been reported stolen at some point in the past – has the likelihood of never being returned to its proper owners; instead, it could very well end up on the auction block at some point in the future, where distant relations of the possible thief will stand to make a healthy profit from the auction of the purloined goods.

On the other hand, we have an extensive collection of possibly stolen / possibly legally purchased goods, of similarly questionable provenance, all of which can be tied to the nation of Italy and of great historical importance for the country, which have been returned at the bequest of the of inheritor of the goods, facilitated by the US government, to their (arguably) rightful home.

Which scenario seems more ethical? It is difficult to make an argument which favors the heirs of the Kingsland collection; should a completely disinterested group of relatives be allowed to profit from possibly criminal activity? True, there is no single entity like a country claiming rightful ownership of Kingsland’s art; but does that mean that simply because no one at all is stepping forward to claim it that it should be open season on it?
The heirs of Kingsland/Kohn would be well-advised to consider the importance to art as an essential part of our cultural landscape and to take an approach similar – though not identical – to that taken by Joseph Sisto. Like the natural resources which make up our environment, the art of the past is an important and dwindling cultural resource, one which needs to be properly nurtured and tended in order to thrive. When it is treated as mere common chattel, of no greater significance than an old family dresser, all suffer.

It is both unfathomable and unfortunate that Kingsland had such disregard – intentionally or otherwise – for the importance of maintaining the provenance of art. Let us hope that, whatever eventually becomes of the Kingsland collection, that it won’t be hoarded like it was by Kingsland himself, and that the future owners / possessors / proprietors treat it not as mere objects to be owned and disposed of at will, but as precious artifacts to be cherished, appreciated, and then passed on to the next generation, in a sound manner of succession which respects both the integrity of the art itself and the culture to which it belongs.


[fn1] Marsh, George Perkins. The Earth as Modified by Human Action: Man and Nature (1874) [emphasis added]
[fn2] Ibid.
[fn3] Konigsberg, Eric. “Two Years Later, the F.B.I. Still Seeks the Owners of a Trove of Artworks” The New York Times, August 11, 2008
[fn4] Shapiro, Gary. “William Kingsland, City ‘Gazetteer,’ Is Dead” The New York Sun, April 13, 2006
[fn5] Konigsberg, Eric. “Two Years Later, the F.B.I. Still Seeks the Owners of a Trove of Artworks” The New York Times, August 11, 2008
[fn6] Shapiro, Gary. “William Kingsland, City ‘Gazetteer,’ Is Dead” The New York Sun, April 13, 2006
[fn7] Konigsberg, Eric. “Two Years Later, the F.B.I. Still Seeks the Owners of a Trove of Artworks” The New York Times, August 11, 2008
[fn8] Ibid.
[fn9] Shapiro, Gary. “Genealogists Discover Identity of Enigmatic Upper East Side Collector” The New York Sun, December 14, 2006
[fn10] Ibid.
[fn11] Ramirez, Margaret and Mitchum, Robert. “1,600 antiquities for Italy: FBI sending back stolen artifacts found in Berwyn” Chicago Tribune, June 9 2009
[fn12] “Stolen Cultural Artifacts Found in Berwyn Residence Returned to Italian Authorities” June 8 2009, F.B.I. Press Release
[fn13] “Son ‘Relieved’ To Tell Cops Of Dad’s Stolen Artifacts” June 10, 2009,
[fn14] Tompa, Peter. “The Strange Case of the Sisto Collection” June 9 2009,
[fn15] Ibid.
[fn16] Donadio, Rachel. “In Italy, Questions Are From Enemies, and That’s That” The New York Times, June 6, 2009,


Alter, Denise M., Esq. “Should Collectors Worry about Art Theft? The Importance of Provenance and Good Title”

Questions or Comments? Email me at

One thought on “Seminar Paper: William M. V. Kingsland and the Importance of Provenance”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.