Art gallery owner Alexander Acevedo was living the art hunter’s dream.
Only one other person at the auction in upstate New York a few years ago seemed interested in the handsome 18th-century portrait of British earl William Ponsonby by an unknown artist. The auction catalog’s suggested value: $1,500 to $2,500.
But Acevedo instantly recognized it as the work of none other than John Singleton Copley, the famous painter whose statue presides over Boston’s Copley Square, potentially making the painting worth more than $1 million.
Acevedo managed to snag the portrait for just $85,000. Excited, he rushed home, getting in a minor car accident along the way, and stayed up late researching his find.
“I was looking at a million-dollar profit and I was happy as a clam,” said Acevedo, owner of the Alexander Gallery in New York City.
But as Acevedo researched the painting, his heart sank. It was stolen from Harvard University’s storage in 1971. Acevedo promptly returned the stolen work to the auctioneers, and it is now back at Harvard.
Art detectives say long-lost works like the Copley are increasingly turning up after going missing for decades, thanks in large part to readily available information on the Internet or in electronic databases. The trend is feeding hopes of art fans that the prized pieces taken from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum 23 years ago could eventually surface as well.
Though the vast majority of missing artwork is never recovered, stolen items are often discovered when they change hand, sometimes many years later, when brokers and buyers research the pieces online and through databases, according to brokers and others in the business.
“We’ve got recoveries happening every week,” said Christopher A. Marinello, an attorney for the Art Loss Register of London, which maintains an international database of more than 360,000 stolen, looted, disputed, or missing works around the world, including 1,000 from Massachusetts and hundreds of pieces from Harvard alone.
“It’s not that unusual to find artwork that has been lost for more than a quarter of a century,” Marinello said. “The valuable pieces either are recovered right away, or they go underground for a generation.”
The Gardner theft, the costliest museum heist in history, remains one of Boston’s most enduring mysteries. Thieves took 13 items worth roughly half a billion dollars, including Rembrandts, a Vermeer, and a portrait by Edouard Manet.
In March, the FBI said it believed it knows who committed the crime and traced some of the art to Philadelphia, where it was offered for sale. But the bureau said it is unsure where the art is today.
Though no hard data is available on how recovery rates have changed, many art detectives believe that dealers and collectors are increasingly spotting stolen items as information becomes more widely distributed on the Internet and in searchable databases, such as the global Art Loss Register, started by the insurance industry in 1991, and the FBI’s National Stolen Art File, which was put online three years ago.
In the past, art brokers had to consult catalogs, which were often out of date and less comprehensive. In addition, law enforcement can now instantly blast alerts about stolen works around the world. Many auctions are also advertised online, allowing more enthusiasts to see the items up for sale.
“The accessibility of the computers and the Internet has changed the whole game,” said Robert King Wittman, who founded the FBI art recovery team in 2004 and now runs his own recovery firm.
Wittman said he helped the FBI find a cache of stolen Norman Rockwell paintings after 23 years and is now working on recovering an item taken in 1945.
In January, a Swedish museum recovered a Matisse painting that was stolen 26 years ago when a thief forced his way into the Moderna Museet in Stockholm with a sledgehammer. The painting turned up after a British art dealer who had been asked to sell the work checked the Art Loss Register database.
Six years ago, New York art dealer Lawrence Steigrad discovered that a valuable painting he was offered had been stolen from a Concord home in 1976. Even before he saw the 1764 painting by Swiss artist Angelica Kauffman, Steigrad said he noticed the piece was “reported missing” in an old art journal, and he confirmed that it was stolen through the Art Loss Register.
Steigrad said he always checks to make sure items are not listed in the database as stolen. “You don’t want to be left holding the bag,” he said. “You can’t sell a stolen picture.”
Still, databases are only valuable if they are put to use. Some buyers and dealers do not bother to check them, either because they trust the seller or do not want to pay the research costs. (The Art Loss Register typically charges between $32 and $195 to check an item.) And not every theft victim reports such losses.
Overall, only about 7 percent of the more than 7,500 items listed in the FBI database have been recovered since the list was started on paper in 1979. Both the Art Loss Register and Interpol, an international group of police agencies, estimate that 5 to 10 percent of works on their lists are eventually recovered.
“That’s improving as the data improves and more people check,” said Marinello.
While museum heists garner the most headlines, most of the art works listed in the Art Loss Register was taken from private homes and collections and are worth less than $10,000 each. The most common artist in the database is Spanish master Pablo Picasso, one of the world’s most prolific painters and sculptors, who created more than 800 of the missing items.
In many cases, art surfaces only when someone inherits it from a family member or friend who has died and then brings the piece to an art dealer who discovers that it was stolen.
Sometimes it can take multiple sales before someone notices that a work was stolen, particularly for less expensive items. Some collectors are willing to buy art with uncertain provenance if they can get a good enough deal and have no reason to suspect the art is stolen, said Bonnie Magness-
Gardiner, program manager for the FBI’s art theft program.
Harvard alone has 300 missing items, including a Chinese green jade container from the Ch’ing dynasty in the late 18th or early 19th century that was discovered missing from an exhibit in 1979, according to the Art Loss Register.
Harvard spokesman Daron Manoogian declined to say what is on the list, how much it is worth, how it disappeared, or whether the museum had any hope of recovering the works or to provide any details about the missing jade. “We don’t comment on these issues for security purposes,” he said.
The university even rebuffed an offer a few years ago to help recover the stolen jade container, when the Art Loss Register learned that the item was being sold in Asia, Marinello said.
The FBI said it has already received a flood of tips in the Gardner case since it made a new push for leads and renewed its offer of a $5 million reward.
Wittman said he believes that someone will eventually come forward with the Gardner works or information on who has the items in order to claim the reward, especially since the statute of limitations has long since expired on the original crime. (Prosecutors could still charge someone with possessing stolen art but would have to prove that the holder knew the items were stolen.)
Marinello said it is possible that some people might be leery of contacting the FBI directly to claim the reward, so he has offered to act as an intermediary at no charge. “I want to see the art back in the Gardner Museum,” said Marinello, who studied for the bar in Boston and recalls seeing the works before they were taken.
But art detectives never know when an item may resurface. The Copley portrait wound up in a collection owned by William Milliken Vanderbilt Kingsland, a genealogist from New York. He left no will, so the estate went to the city of New York, which hired two auction houses to sell the works in 2006.
Many of the items were hot, including a second piece from Harvard, a portrait of former Harvard president John Thornton Kirkland that disappeared in 1968 and was later returned to the university.
Acevedo, who bought the Copley, said he realized that the work might be stolen hours after the auction when he spotted references to the painting being in the Fogg Art Museum’s collection at Harvard in the 1960s or 1970s.
Though museums occasionally sell minor pieces to prune their collections, Acevedo said he did not think the Copley was the type of work Harvard would sell. A museum curator promptly confirmed his worst fears: It was indeed stolen. Though the auctioneer refunded what he paid for the work, Acevedo watched his potential profit evaporate. “I missed out on a million bucks.”Todd Wallack can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.