The Thief Came At Night. The Target: Maxfield Parrish Murals Worth $5m
An audacious night-time theft in 2002 robbed Texas businessman and art collector J.P. Bryan of two Maxfield Parrish murals, worth $4-$5 million. They have never been seen since.
On an otherwise unremarkable July day in 2002, Texas businessman and art collector J.P. Bryan received an unexpected call from the FBI. The agent on the other end of the line wanted to confirm that Bryan was the owner of six Maxfield Parrish murals that had originally been painted in the early 20th century for Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Bryan confirmed that he was, but wondered why the FBI was calling him.
“He said, ‘Well, you know, they’ve been stolen from the Edenhurst Gallery,’” Bryan told The Daily Beast. Bryan didn’t know.
Three days earlier, in the middle of the night, a thief had climbed through a hole in the roof, into the gallery and cut two of the giant canvases out of their frames.
When the gallery opened for business Monday morning, the thief and the two Parrish panels, which are estimated to be worth around $4 or $5 million, had vanished without a trace.
The pieces remain on the FBI’s Top Ten Art Crimes list, but the trail has gone cold.
Maxfield Parrish may not be a household name today, but in the early 1900s, he was one of the most popular artists and illustrators in America. An oft-cited statistic claims that one in every five households in the U.S. had a Parrish print on display in the 1920s, and, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, he was the “highest-paid commercial artist in the United States” during that decade.
Born in 1870 in Philadelphia, Parrish became the go-to illustrator at the turn of the century for magazine covers and commercial products like calendars and posters. But he was also a painter who produced celebrated works of fine art like the famous mural in the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol would eventually count themselves as Parrish fans.
In the early 1910s, nearly two decades before she would go on to found the Whitney Museum of American Art, sculptor and prominent art patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney commissioned Parrish to paint a series of murals for the art studio at her Long Island home.
It took the artist four years, until 1918, to complete the six large-scale murals and three additional transom paintings that made up the series.
Parrish was known for his dreamlike, whimsical style of painting and composition. He often composed scenes that recalled classical motifs and themes—Roman columns and Greek urns, figures in artfully draped tunics and gowns, and bucolic landscapes—but the scenes were often populated with people modeled from his own life and in familiar settings.
The murals he painted for Whitney followed in this style. His theme for the series was a Florentine celebration in a courtyard and garden, though he swapped out the Italian palace for a background that resembled his patron’s own home.
The figures, many of whom are the artist’s friends and family members, are in period costume of tunics and robes and they are set against a sky of “evening blue” because “there is nothing more beautiful in all of nature than figures against a sky,” as Parrish wrote to Whitney in 1912.
By the time Whitney commissioned the murals, Parrish was already a celebrated artist and illustrator. But the new project allowed him to stretch his talent in a novel way.
“It is tremendously interesting to have the chance to revel in color as deep and as rich as you please,” Parrish wrote. The artist considered this series some of the finest paintings he ever created.
Bryan began collecting at a very early age. He came by his passion naturally; his father had “a fabulous collection of Texas maps and books and related items.” His first two purchases at around the age of 10 were vintage guns—a Moore’s Patent Front Loading Revolver and a Sharps Patent Four-Barrel Derringer, “like the kind that would have been carried by a gambler.”
While studying art history at the University of Texas, Bryan started a successful rare-book business with a friend.
In 1981, he turned his business acumen to the energy sector and founded Torch Energy Advisors, Inc, but his passion for collecting art and antiques never waned. He eventually built such an impressive collection of Western art and artifacts that in 2015 he founded the Bryan Museum in Galveston, TX, to enable the public to see his treasures.
When he lived in New York for a time, Bryan remembers being quite taken by the Parrish mural at the St. Regis, but his passion for the artist began much earlier than that.
“We stayed at a resort in Colorado Springs when I was a child, and they had a painting at the hotel by Maxfield Parrish and it hung behind the reception desk,” Bryan recalled. “I became quite an admirer of the painting. Matter of fact, on occasion, I would just pass by the front desk so I could admire the painting.”
So when a friend discovered that Whitney’s estate was selling the Maxfield Parrish murals, Bryan became excited about the opportunity to contribute to the history of the painter, though he realized the works didn’t quite fit in with his Western art collection. He decided to buy the pieces, restore them, and then put them back up for sale.
Which is how the panels ended up at the Edenhurst Gallery in West Hollywood in July, 2002.
It’s unclear why the thief (or thieves) honed in on panels 3A and 3B and left the other four works behind. It might have been a made-to-order job, perhaps the criminal or mastermind behind the theft took a fancy to these particular pieces, or maybe they just ran out of time and muscle power. Measuring around five feet by six feet, the panels were rather large, even when crudely cut out of their frames and rolled up.
“Certainly, it’s a very professional job,” Detective Scott Petz of the L.A. County Sheriff Department told the New York Times after the theft. “This is not some burglar who happened upon something. This was targeted, and it took some know-how.”
"There is a passion for Parrish. It sounds melodramatic but it’s true. It has the makings of a contract [theft] like The Thomas Crown Affair and—guess what—it was shown on television on the three days before they were stolen,” Alma Gilbert, an art gallery owner and Parrish expert speculated in the days following the crime.
For Bryan’s part, he thinks the panels are long gone by now. He said that Asian art collectors currently have a particular passion for Parrish and “my suspicion is they were probably stolen and taken to Japan or maybe China, because it’s not criminal to own stolen works of art in those countries.”
As for the remaining four panels, plus the three smaller works that once decorated the walls of Whitney’s Long Island studio, they remain in Bryan’s possession. After reaching a settlement with the gallery and the insurance company, Bryan made one attempt to auction off the remaining pieces in the series. When that sale failed, he decided to keep the Parrish murals, which are currently on view in a special exhibition at the Bryan Museum.
“We decided that they sat in storage long enough, let’s get them out and let people see the wonder of them and what magnificent works, because, as you probably know, Maxfield Parrish said that those paintings changed his entire career.”
Maxfield Parrish: The Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Murals is on view at the Bryan Museum in Galveston, TX, through May 11.