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Pillow Talk: Recovering A Stolen Masterwork Over The Internet

December 21, 2022
A Dutch landscape from the 17th century showing townspeople at the edge of a river or lake enjoying a winter day by skating on the frozen ice

Winter Landscape with Skater and Other Figures by Hendrick Avercamp

In 1978 in Worcester, Massachusetts, the home of Helen and Robert Stoddard was burgled. The robbers took twelve artworks valued at $10 million, many of which the Stoddards had promised to donate to the Worcester Art Museum, of which Robert was a trustee. Forty-four years later, only three of the stolen pieces have been recovered, including a 1902 painting by Camille Pissarro. One of the works stolen that night was a painting by the Dutch old master Hendrick Avercamp entitled Winter Landscape with Skater and Other Figures. The painting would have been considered lost forever had it not been for one incredibly eagle-eyed art connoisseur.

Clifford Schorer is the Worcester Art Museum’s former board president who some may remember as being involved with discovering a lost Albrecht Dürer print back in February of this year. In 2021, Schorer stumbled across a website selling various forms of merchandise, including an $18 throw pillow decorated with a print of the stolen landscape. He also saw phone cases, tote bags, and other merchandise featuring the painting’s image. While that itself isn’t entirely unusual, Schorer noticed that the image used to make these pillows was of too high a quality to have been taken in the 1970s before it was stolen. So Schorer looked a little deeper, downloading the image used for the merchandise and looking at some of the metadata. This led him to a string of libraries, galleries, and dealers until he found the records of a now-closed gallery that had sold the painting around 1995 at an art fair in Europe. He also learned that whoever had stolen the work had altered it slightly so that the signature reads “B. Avercamp” instead of “H. Avercamp”. This was most likely why many records, including the merchandise website, attribute the painting to Barent Avercamp, Hendrick Avercamp’s lesser-known nephew and student. Had the signature gone unaltered, the painting would have likely sold far higher than the $200K a Dutch couple paid for the work. Sadly, the Dutch couple have since passed away. The Worcester Art Museum sent notice to their heirs, but they have not responded.

While all this took place last year, it was only this past month that Schorer sent a warning to the current owners that the museum would open a criminal case against them in the Netherlands within 40 days. Hopefully, the painting may be returning to Massachusetts sooner rather than later.