BRISTOL — Three valuable paintings stolen in a brazen 1976 armed robbery in Shrewsbury, Mass., are in the hands of the FBI, after they were surrendered by a Bristol attorney who received them from his brother, a Barrington art dealer, as collateral for a $22,000 loan six or seven years ago.
Read the facts of the court case filed Monday in federal court in Providence.
Investigators don't know how Barrington resident William Conley, the proprietor of Upscale Emporium at 280 County Road, ended up with the paintings, which he gave to his brother, Bristol attorney Dr. Patrick Conley, below, as collateral for the loan. The paintings were stolen at gunpoint from an affluent Shrewsbury home on July 1, 1976.
But now the works, which by one estimate are worth $1 million or more — are the subject of a legal tug-of-war in federal court among Dr. Conley, the heirs of the painting's original owners and an insurance company.
Dr. Conley, a prominent historian, attorney and real estate developer who lives in a sprawling home beneath the Mt. Hope Bridge, said he discovered the paintings' checkered past after having them inspected by a prominent Newport art dealer last year. When he and the dealer discovered their history, they promptly called the FBI.
"We didn't want to have stolen paintings on our hands," Dr. Conley said Friday. "My brother, I have no idea how he got them; I don't know that he knew they were stolen."
A number listed to Uspcale Emporium was disconnected, and William Conley could not be reached for comment.
According to paperwork filed Monday in federal court in Providence, the paintings — Childe Hassam's "In the Sun," Gustav Courbet's "The Shore of Lake Geneva," and William Hamilton's "Lady as Shepherdess" — were stolen from the home of Mae Persky in 1976.
Shrewsbury police reports obtained by the Worcester (Mass.) Telegraph and Gazette state that three masked robbers, one of them armed, cut the home's telephone lines, bound Mrs. Persky, a nurse and a caretaker, and proceeded to ransack the house, stealing the paintings and other items, including jewelry and silver, before fleeing with an estimated $60,000 haul. The robbers were never caught.
The paintings' trail went silent at that point, and nothing was heard until about six or seven years ago, when William Conley, below, approached his brother Patrick and asked for the $22,000 loan.
Dr. Conley said he is not close to his brother, William, an art dealer who has been in the business for 40 years. That was partly the reason he asked for collateral up front before agreeing to the six-month loan, he said.
"He was very desperate for money," said Dr. Conley. "I was a little bit reluctant, so I said 'You've gotta give me some collateral.' He brought the paintings to me, and said 'They're valuable, worth much more than the amount you're giving me.' "
Not knowing they were stolen, Dr. Conley accepted the paintings and gave his brother six months to pay back the loan.
"A few months turned into a few years, and the loan was never redeemed," continued Dr. Conley. "I finally said to myself that if he doesn't want to take the paintings back, they're probably copies and I was out $22,000."
So last year, Dr. Conley contacted a friend, prominent New York art dealer and appraiser William Varieka, and asked him to look into the paintings' value. About a month later, the expert got back to him.
"He said, 'I've got good news and bad news,' " said Dr. Conley.
"I said, 'Give me the good news first.' "
"These paintings are not copies," he reportedly replied. "They're genuine. Now the bad news: They're stolen."
"I said, 'You've gotta be kidding me.'"
What happened next is not clear. Dr. Conley said Mr. Varieka learned of the paintings' history after contacting the New York Art Loss Register, a firm that records art thefts and works with law enforcement agencies to return stolen works to their rightful owners. Once the determination came in that they were stolen, Dr. Conley said, both he and Mr. Varieka agreed that they should call the FBI.
"We didn't want to have stolen paintings around," said Dr. Conley. "If they were stolen they should be returned to the proper owners."
However, FBI Special Agent Gail A. Marcinkiewicz said Friday that the FBI became involved not after hearing from Dr. Conley or the dealer, but by Art Loss Register officials.
Regardless, Dr. Conley and Mr. Varieka were soon in contact with FBI officials, who traveled to Mr. Varieka's Newport gallery to retrieve the paintings.
"They've had them ever since," said Dr. Conley. "Once I gave them (to Mr. Varieka) they were never back here" in Bristol.
Though authorities won't say whether there will be an arrest in the case, the fate of the paintings has set off a dispute between Dr. Conley and his wife, Gail, the heirs of the Persky family, and an insurance company that paid the Persky family for their loss following the 1976 robbery.
First, OneBeacon Insurance, identified in court papers as "successor-in-interest" to Commercial Union Insurance, claims an interest because Commercial Union was the firm that paid Mrs. Persky a $45,000 settlement for the thefts following the 1976 robbery.
Second, Judith Yoffie of Worcester, Mass., claims an interest, as the paintings were left in Mrs. Persky's will to her late husband, who died last year. Mrs. Persky reportedly died in 1979.
Finally, Dr. and Gail Conley assert an interest in the paintings, as they stand to lose the $22,000 they loaned William Conley.
"Over the last year I've been attempting to get some kind of determination of ownership," said Dr. Conley. "What is the correct ownership? Usually possession is 9/10ths of the law, but what if they're stolen?"
"Someone should reimburse my wife and I," he added. "If it weren't for the fact that we called in the FBI when we found out that they were stolen, those paintings would never have been recovered."
As for his brother, Mr. Conley said he hasn't spoken to him in quite some time, and doesn't know how to reach him.
"I'm a little aggravated that the collateral he furnished was stolen."
To read more about the original 1976 theft of the paintings, as reported by Scott J. Croteau of the Worcester Telegraph & Gazette, click here:
By Ted Hayes
To be continued..............