Federal Agents On The Hunt For Thousands Of Lost Depression-Era Paintings

When someone is called a "history detective" rarely is that person an actual detective.

Michael Ramos is.

Mike is a Special Agent with the Inspector Generals Office at the US General Services Administration. What that means is Mike spends most of his time chasing down bad guys who waste taxpayers' money or steal government property.

"That's right," Mike says. "A vast majority of our work involves people with criminal intent."

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Michael Ramos is a Special Agent with the US General Services Administration. For the past three years he has been attempting to locate some of the thousands of pieces of art, commissioned during the Great Depression, that the government has lost track of.

But for the past three years Mike has had a case on his roster that hasn't involved hunting down thieves, but rather tracking down lost works of art. It is a change of pace that this detective has enjoyed.

"It's a pleasure to be a part of it," Mike says. "It's history."

The works of art Mike has been asked to locate were among the hundreds of thousands commissioned during the Great Depression as part of the Works Progress Administration, or WPA.

The WPA was a way the government came up with to put millions of unemployed Americans back to work. While it is most well known for its large-scale projects like bridges, damns, and monuments, the WPA helped struggling artists as well.

An estimated 200,000 works of art were commissioned by the WPA. Many of the paintings created were then doled out for display in public buildings such as city halls, libraries, and schools.

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Mike found two pieces of WPA art, by artist Sophie Brannan, hanging in the adult room of the Grand Avenue Branch of the South San Francisco Public Library.

And then, for the most part, the federal government lost track of them.

"Sometimes records were non-existent, facilities close, administrations change and they lose track of the artwork," Mike says.

Still, it is the GSA's responsibility to look after government property, which is why a few years ago administrators in Washington D.C. tasked their agents around the country with trying to track down what artwork they could.


Using modern-day technology, and old-fashioned shoe leather, Mike and his colleagues at the GSA's San Francisco office have successfully tracked down more than 150 pieces with an estimated $3 million value.

Among his finds were a dozen works of art at the Grand Avenue Branch of the South San Francisco Public Library. Mike found WPA paintings covering the walls of a staff workroom as well as stored in the basement. Two of the paintings, however, by artist Sophie Brannan were hiding in plain sight, hanging from the wall in the library's adult room.

"The first time I walked in and saw that I got the goose bumps," Mike says.

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With the help of staff at the San Mateo County Library, Mike was able to locate another fifty missing pieces of WPA art. He says they GSA has no intention of taking the art, but just wants to have a better idea of where this government property is.

Following a tip, Mike also contacted the staff at the San Mateo County Library administrative building. "When I first got his email I just looked at his job title and wondered, 'What I did wrong?'," says library assistant Shannon Nottestad.

Once Mike explained his mission, though, Shannon was more than happy to point him in the direction of the building's attic, where more than 50 WPA works of art were being stored.

"A lot of people are passionate about the WPA," Mike says of people like Shannon,"and once you have them on your side it's like having another investigator."

Mike and the rest of the GSA will need that help. Of the hundreds of thousands of pieces commissioned, the GSA knows of the location of fewer than 30,000 of them.

The ones they do find, however, don't go anywhere. The GSA is not interested in taking possession of the paintings, it just wants to know where its property is after all these years.

Mike says should the public become aware of WPA artwork for sale or have knowledge of existing pieces in non-federal repositories (libraries, schools, hospitals, etc) they can contact him at 415-522-2756. They can also remain anonymous by contacting the GSA's hotline at 800-424-5210 or fraudnet@gsaig.gov.

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