FBI is investigating suspected art heist

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04/15/2010 12:00 AM |

With his oil painting of Amish country in Ohio among 200 missing works, artist Max Moran has only this photographic record of the piece

Max Moran has been painting for 33 years and, like many in the fine arts world, he fell in love with the North Fork, its light and lands. Bidding Manhattan farewell, he became a full-time resident in 1996.

But the magic and inspiration he found here soured three years ago when he discovered about 200 of his paintings, mostly oil on canvas figure studies, were missing and presumed stolen. Now a resident of Baiting Hollow, Mr. Moran had a house and studio on Sound Avenue in Mattituck when the works vanished. The art was kept in his basement and in a local storage facility and may have been taken between February 2005 and June 2006, when he moved to Baiting Hollow. Mr. Moran said he was away for periods during that time painting in the Catskills and Adirondacks.

“It’s like being culturally raped,” he said in an interview. He’s looking for the one tip that could lead to the recovery of his paintings.

“These are some of my most valuable and culturally significant pieces,” he said. “Whoever took them knew what they were doing and had to have the time to go through them. Somebody obviously had help. This wasn’t a one-person job.”

The FBI has the case, but so far none of the pieces has turned up and no arrests have been made, The missing works’ value “is well into six figures,” said Mr. Moran. Many of the pieces are unsigned.

“We’ve looked into it,” said Special Agent Richard Kolko, a spokesman for the FBI’s New York office. “We’d be interested to see if there’s any additional information available.”

The theft may or may not be a federal offense, Agent Kolko said, adding, “It’s too early to know.” That depends on where the art might have been taken. If any of the paintings crossed state lines, the theft falls under the federal “interstate transportation of stolen property” provision, said the agent.

The investigation began with the Southold Town police. But given that the art may have gone out of state, if not out of the country, the department suggested to Mr. Moran that he contact the FBI, explained Southold Police Detective Ned Grathwohl.

While a heist of 200 paintings might seem hard to miss, Mr. Moran said many were unmounted pieces that, when stored flat, do not take up much space. Others were stacked horizontally. He likened it to passing a shelf of books and not noticing that some might be missing.

“I have a pretty good memory, but you can’t recall every single piece,” he said. “It’s impossible.”

It appears that whoever took the paintings had an eye for nudes, perhaps in the belief that those pieces would be easier to sell, Mr. Moran said.

Also missing is a portrait of legendary college football coach Woody Hayes, who led Ohio State to three national championships. For a time that painting had hung in the Football Hall of Fame, said Mr. Moran, a native of Columbus, Ohio. Gone too are portraits of Irish actor Milo O’Shea and musicians Natalie Merchant and Joey Ramone.

“I don’t get a moment’s sleep with this,” said the artist, whose work has been shown extensively on the North Fork. “You wake up with it, you go to bed with it. My paintings are not my kids, but they do come into the world with pain and a struggle.”

Locally, Mr. Moran is perhaps best known for his landscapes.

“I paint the environment and the time which I’m in,” he said.

He fears that some of his work might appear on online auction sites and offered on the cheap since there’s no provenance in its sales history.

“It’s like working for a couple of years without getting paid,” said Mr. Moran. “But what are you going to do, sulk about it? You go out again and throw some paint on a canvas.”

Anyone with information about the missing artwork is asked to contact the FBI in New York at 212-384-5000.

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