|By Jim Rutledge
NEW HYDE PARK, N.Y. — Nearly 10 years ago a large painting of President Franklin D. Roosevelt by famous 19th century American portrait artist Ellen Emmett Rand turned up missing from FDR’s Presidential Library. It’s disappearance – or theft – remains a mystery.
“I can’t understand why a library dedicated to FDR and a National Archive dedicated to American history would not be urgently on the trail of this very significant painting. If you’ve seen this painting, you do not forget the image,” said the grandson of the artist, Boston University professor Peter Rand.
The mystery began innocently in the Spring of 2004, when Rand was visiting Roosevelt’s Presidential Library in New Hyde Park, N.Y. to conduct research for a book he was writing, (The Code Clerk Spy, the exploits of World War II British spy Tyler Kent). During the library visit, Rand requested to view the painting by his grandmother. At the time, Library director Cynthia Koch simply told him the painting was not available for viewing.
“I suspected nothing” at the time, Rand remembers recounting the visit.
Six months later, in October 2004, Rand received the startling news that the painting was missing. Feeling “shock” and “dismay,” “I could not believe what I was reading,” Rand described as he tried to absorb details of the disappearance in a letter from Koch. Rand said the letter detailed how a series of searches and an investigation by federal authorities turned up nothing.
According to Rand, Koch’s letter said no one could recall seeing the painting since 2001, when the painting was moved to temporary art storage. “With no one seeing the painting for three years before discovering it wasn’t there, there was plenty of time for someone to plan and pull off a theft,” Rand told a Poughkeepsie newspaper at the time. “Anyone who decided they wanted the painting for one reason or another, probably had the time to get it out of there.”
As soon as the painting was discovered missing, library officials notified the Inspectors General office of the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., who are the watchdogs for Presidential libraries and the guardian of the nation’s most treasured documents and artifacts.
Since then, no federal agents or library officials have contacted Rand about the investigation.
However, in a Washington Post article on Feb. 23, 2011, Archives’ Inspector General Paul Brachfeld said he thinks he knows who took the painting, but he doesn’t have enough evidence to pursue a case. When asked by AntiqueWeek to elaborate, Brachfeld declined to give a full explanation of his comment.
When pressed further, Brachfeld avoided the issue. Rand also said, library officials told him they cannot rule out the possibility or accidental discard or misplacement of the painting. Rand, however, said he finds it difficult to believe a work so large, more than 5-feet high and 4-feet wide, stored in a 250 pound art crate, could be accidentally tossed in a trash container.
The missing work has been listed on the FBI’s National Stolen Art database of stolen art and cultural property, as a resource for law enforcement investigating stolen-art related thefts. Just because it’s listed, however, doesn’t mean the FBI is investigating, said the FBI.
Ellen Emmett Rand was commissioned by President Roosevelt himself to paint one of three paintings of the president in the early 1930s, and it was the last one she did, that he liked so much he had it hung in the White House.
It was removed in 1947 when it was replaced by a Salisbury portrait of FDR. President Harry S. Truman decided to send the painting to FDR’s son, John A. Roosevelt, who then presented it to the FDR Library in 1962. The first of the three commissioned paintings by Ellen Emmett Rand was at the request of Sara Delano Roosevelt and completed in l932.
It is currently owned by the U.S. National Park Service and on display today in the library of FDR’s New Hyde Park home, Springwood. The second painting was kept by Ellen Emmett Rand herself and was later discovered in her home in 1947, six years after her death.
The missing official portrait was housed in a gilt wood frame, and was a mix of rich colors of brown, black, red and gold oil paint. She began her portraits by sketching her subjects. In the painting, FDR is seated next to a table with his right arm resting on top of a piece of paper.
His left arm is holding a series of messages. To his left is a model of a sailing ship and to his right are curtains. Roosevelt sat for two days while Ellen Emmett Rand worked on the painting as the president read messages and Congressional legislation, according to Professor Rand.
Lynn Bassanese, acting director of the FDR library, values the painting “in the tens of thousands of dollars.”
Federal authorities said anyone with information about the missing FDR portrait should contact the National Archives Inspector General’s office in Washington, D.C. by e-mail at MissingDocuments@nara.gov or by calling (800) 837-3500.