The FBI has offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of two historic paintings stolen from a Portland, Maine, apartment two years ago, calling the heist one of the biggest property thefts in Maine’s history.
The two paintings by N.C. Wyeth — a renowned American painter and illustrator who summered in Maine — were among six that were taken from the home some time around May 2013. The other four paintings have been recovered, and three people, including two reality TV show personalities, are in prison or facing sentencing in relation to an attempt to pawn them at a shop in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Authorities say they hope the reward will raise public awareness about the remaining two paintings, valued at millions of dollars, and bring information that could lead to their recovery.
“I’m optimistic that one day soon the paintings will be returned to their rightful owner, and we’ll bring those responsible to justice,” said Vincent B. Lisi, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office.
Michael Sauschuck, chief of police in Portland, Maine, said authorities there sought the FBI’s assistance because of the complexity of the investigation.
The missing Wyeth paintings are “The Encounter on Freshwater Cliff,” and “Go, Dutton, and that right speedily. . .”
They were part of a collection held by Portland businessman Joe Soley. N.C. Wyeth, who was born in Needham in 1882, is well known for illustrations in children’s books and classic literature, such as “Treasure Island” and “The Last of the Mohicans.” He was the father of Andrew Wyeth, one of the best-known American artists of the 20th century.
Authorities did not identify Soley by name, but he has spoken to the Portland Press Herald about the theft and the FBI’s investigation. He said he did not know how the paintings were taken. “I am hoping someone reads about this, has some information and will come forward,” he told the newspaper.
Sauschuck said Portland authorities were first notified of the theft in May 2013, and they treated the incident like a burglary. His department sought the FBI’s help in June 2013 after realizing what was taken.
Lisi said the culprit may have targeted the Wyeth paintings, since other valuable materials at the apartment were not touched.
“There is a strong possibility someone could have been familiar with the art, and wanted to take advantage of the situation,” Lisi said.
The FBI special agent said there was a “significant lag” between the time when Soley last saw the paintings and when he realized they were taken, but he did not say how long.
Authorities were able to recover four of the paintings last December after a man from North Hollywood, Calif., used them to secure a $100,000 loan at a Beverly Hills pawn shop. The man, Oscar Leroy Roberts, had reportedly raised the suspicions of the pawn shop’s owner by repeatedly encouraging him to quickly sell the paintings.
Yossi Dina, who owns the Dina Collection pawn shop, told Los Angeles-based news reporters that “I was suspicious with the art. Something look not so clean, and fishy.” He then contacted the FBI.
Dina is featured on “Beverly Hills Pawn,” a reality show on the Reelz television network.
Roberts, who was sentenced in April to 28 months in federal prison for pledging stolen property to secure a loan, produced a reality-TV pilot, “It’s Heaven and Hollywood,” about an up- and-coming hip-hop record label.
Authorities had been investigating Roberts and one of the show’s cast members, Dean Coroniti, before Roberts attempted to pawn the paintings, they said.
A Texas police officer noticed that one of Coroniti’s associates, Lawrence Estrella, had the paintings in his car during a traffic stop in that state in November. The officer did not know at the time that the paintings were stolen, however, and he later notified the FBI of the stop.
FBI agents tracked Estrella to a hotel in North Carolina, and determined he had been in contact with Coroniti. Authorities then learned that Coroniti had been attempting to sell the paintings, telling Roberts that he “was going to inherit some art . . . he was going to be rich,” according to court records.
Estrella, 65, of Worcester, was convicted of interstate transportation of stolen property, and was sentenced to seven years and eight months in federal prison.
Coroniti, 55, formerly of Boston, pleaded guilty in March to possession of stolen property. He has not been sentenced.
Lisi would not say whether the three men were assisting in the recovery of the other two paintings.
He said the FBI is involved in the investigation and offering the reward because “it’s a significant theft in Maine. We’re going to take it seriously, and we’re going to give it everything we have up there.”
The FBI is asking anyone with information to contact the agency at 800-225-5324, or to provide details through its online site, tips.fbi.gov.