United States

eBay Sparks Discovery of Lost New Deal Art in Petaluma, Sacramento

U.S. General Services Administration Office of Inspector General

The art world is full of breaking news this week.

In Italy, two stolen Van Goghs paintings were found after 14 years following a raid on a Naples-based mafia group.

And closer to home, the General Services Administration Office of the Inspector General in San Francisco recovered two paintings stemming from the 1930s that belong to the federal government and ended up in the hands of people in Sacramento and Petaluma.

These paintings, showing dreary landscapes of the Great Depression, may not have the same panache of Van Gogh. But they do belong to the United States, as they were commissioned by the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, to rebuild the country with social programs, and pay unemployed artists, first enacted by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and '40s.

U.S. General Services Administration Office of Inspector General

And finding them is a victory for Assistant Special Agent in Charge, Mike Ramos, whose job is to track down these paintings and find new, federally approved homes for them as part of the GSA's Fine Arts program.

"I was thrilled," Ramos said. "This is the public's art."

Both paintings are called "Landscape." The first was created by Theodore Polis and was recovered in July in Petaluma from an art appraiser. The appraiser told Ramos that he received the piece as compensation for work he performed for a Palm Springs art dealer.

The second painting was recovered Wednesday and is a water color by Dong Kingman, showing sparse trees, sand dunes and houses in the San Francisco Bay Area. A former teacher at Sacramento High School took the piece home to save it when the school was demolished, the executor of her estate told Ramos.

Both were being sold on eBay, and Ramos' office got a tip to look on the site for the art. He did not put a value on either piece, and said they will find new, appropriate homes somewhere in Northern and Southern California. Each of the pieces has documentation with the words "Federal Art Project" typed in ancient paper to identify their connection to the WPA program.

U.S. General Services Administration Office of Inspector General

Unlike the Van Gogh situation in Italy, the people who had housed these paintings are not in any trouble, Ramos. "If not for their efforts, the art might have been lost or inadvertently destroyed," he said.

Often the holders of these pieces of art have no idea what they inherited, bought or found, Ramos said. They must, however, turn them over to the government.

When the art is re-displayed, Ramos said the people who gave up the art will get a credit line with their names underneath to "appreciate their long-term care for the artwork."

To date, the national team of the General Services Administration Office of the Inspector General has identified 28,000 art pieces, of a possible 200,000 identified, from this era. The investigative team has actually recovered 500 of them so far, Ramos said, including a painting in Oakland at a gallery last year.

If people are aware of these unaccounted or missing WPA art pieces, they should contact the GSA OIG at fraudnet@gsa.gov or the San Francisco Regional Office at 415-522-2755.  More information can be found here.

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