ARTWORK WAS STOLEN IN 1972 FROM THE WAITING ROOM OF A HONOLULU DENTIST’S OFFICE.
On November 14, 1972, a painting by iconic artist Margaret Keane was stolen from a dentist’s office waiting room in Honolulu, and remained missing for nearly 50 years. On July 21, 2021, Heritage Auctions reunited the lost artwork with its original owners – among them, the woman depicted in the painting as a 7-year-old girl.
During a media conference at the Dallas-based auction house’s global headquarters, Heritage officials turned over the painting to the family’s representative, Robert Wittman, a former FBI special agent and founder of the agency’s Art Crime Team. The work sold at auction in December 2020, shortly after which Wittman, a renowned art-recovery and security specialist, informed Heritage Auctions it had been stolen from Hawaii in 1972.
The work, known as Eyes Upon You, was consigned to Heritage Auctions by a family who purchased it from a New Jersey gallery in the 1980s. The painting does not appear on the FBI’s National Stolen Art File, a database of stolen art and cultural property. Wittman says it remains unclear how the painting made its way from Hawaii to New Jersey.
“There is no way Heritage could have known it was stolen and has no criminal culpability whatsoever,” Wittman says. “Because of Heritage’s reputation as a good company that does the right thing, I contacted executives there, sent all the evidence we’d gathered, and they did what I thought they would do, which is the right thing.”
The family, which has spent decades looking for the work, wishes to remain unnamed. But through Wittman, they provided the following statement:
“Robert Wittman’s deep experience, network of contacts and swift action were instrumental and critical to the successful and speedy recovery of the artwork. Concurrently, we deeply appreciate Heritage Auctions for its attentiveness and honorable efforts on the return of our painting. The painting holds a special meaning to our family because our father was fortunate enough to work with the artist and envisioned the concept and images on this unique piece of art. We are grateful that our painting will be returning home to our family.”
“We couldn’t be more delighted that the family that lost the painting in 1972 is finally getting it back,” said Ed Beardsley, Vice President and Managing Director of Heritage Auctions’ Fine & Decorative Arts department. “This is a moment for them to celebrate, and we’re happy to participate in such a positive outcome.”
Keane, renowned for her work featuring subjects with expressive, oversized eyes, was a pop-culture phenomenon in the 1960s and 1970s; in 1965, Andy Warhol said in Life magazine that “I think what Keane has done is just terrific.” Her legend only grew over time, with The New York Times noting in 1999 that “Margaret Keane’s work is now being collected by the likes of Tim Burton, the director, and Matthew Sweet, the rocker. It is being stockpiled by the hip designers at Roxy/Quiksilver surf wear and regularly referenced in the teen magazines otherwise devoted to Dawson’s Creek.”
She was also the subject of Tim Burton’s 2014 film Big Eyes, in which Keane was portrayed by Amy Adams, who won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Comedy or Musical for the role.
A native of Tennessee, Keane was living in Honolulu in 1972. There, she saw a little girl she wanted to include in a painting of several children. The girl’s father provided Keane with these photos of his daughter, who was then 7 years old. The girl appears in the center of the painting, which was intended to represent the racial diversity of Hawaii’s population. It took Keane three months to complete.
The girl’s father purchased the work and displayed it in his dentist’s office waiting room.
According to family members and former employees interviewed by Wittman, the dentist and his employees went to lunch each day around noon, but left the door to the waiting room unlocked for patients who arrived early for their 1 p.m. appointments. When they returned from lunch on November 14, 1972, they noticed the painting was gone. Honolulu police were contacted, a story appeared in the newspaper, and an ad ran for several days offering a reward for its return – “no questions asked.”
The family then spent the next five decades, on and off, looking for the work, with no luck. A fortuitous Google search earlier this year revealed that the painting had been sold through Heritage Auctions in December.
In April the family contacted Wittman, who began researching the theft and interviewing family members and former employees. He then contacted Heritage Auctions, which immediately contacted the seller and buyer of the painting; both were cooperative in facilitating the painting’s return to its original owner. Heritage also refunded the buyer in full.
“It’s fairly uncommon that these things are recovered and returned this quickly,” Wittman says. “But in this case, Heritage immediately recognized the situation and wanted to take the right action to protect and honor the heritage of this family.”
This article appears in the August 2021 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Subscribe to the digital magazine here.