A painting by iconic artist Margaret Keane that was stolen from a Honolulu dental clinic nearly 50 years ago was turned over today to a representative of the original owners, one of whom is a woman depicted in the painting when she was a child.
Officials of Heritage Auctions, the largest fine art and collectibles auction house founded in the U.S., turned over the artwork, “Eyes Upon You,” to family representative Robert Wittman during a news conference held at the auction house’s headquarters in Dallas.
The painting was stolen from the dental clinic in November 1972.
The oil painting sold for $35,000 at a December 2020 auction. According to Heritage, the work was consigned to the auction house by a family who purchased it from a New Jersey gallery in the 1980s.
It’s unclear how the painting made its way to New Jersey from Hawaii, Wittman, former FBI agent and founder of the agency’s Art Crime Team, said in a news release issued by Heritage Auctions today. “There is no way Heritage could have known it was stolen and has no criminal culpability whatsoever,” he said. “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 who spent decades in search of the stolen painting wishes to remain unnamed. The family issued the following statement via Wittman: “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.”
In a phone interview from Dallas today, Wittman said the owners are expected to receive the painting this weekend.
Keane is renowned for her work featuring subjects with expressive, oversized eyes. A native of Tennessee, the artist was living in Honolulu in 1972 and saw a girl she wanted to include in a painting of several children to represent the racial diversity of Hawaii’s population. The child’s father provided Keane a photo of his daughter who was 7 years old at the time.
The girl appears in the center of the painting. The child’s father purchased the work and displayed it in the waiting room of his dental clinic.
On Nov. 14, 1972, the dentist and his staff went to lunch around noon but left the door to the waiting room unlocked in case patients arrived early for their 1 p.m. appointments. When they returned, they noticed the painting was gone, Wittman said.
Over the next five decades, the dentist and his family periodically searched for the painting to no avail.
In April, they discovered in a Google search that the work had been sold through Heritage in December and contacted Wittman.
He contacted the auction house and the company contacted the seller and buyer of the painting who were both cooperative. Heritage also provided a full refund to the buyer.