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Crime: Stolen Hobcaw artwork returns, but mystery remains

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

John Ivy said George Chastain, executive director of the Belle Baruch Foundation, didn’t seem excited to hear that he had found valuable paintings and prints stolen 13 years ago from Bellefield House.

Chastain learned to be skeptical of claims that the works of art had been found after the television show “Antiques Roadshow” did a story about them in 2013. He got a steady stream of false alarms.

Ivy, owner of Ivy Auction House in Laurens, found the art in a consignment for an estate auction. His wife, Patty, recognized the name of the artist, Sir Alfred Munnings, but he didn’t know anything about the subject matter, Belle Baruch and her horse Souriant.

It’s standard procedure to authenticate art and check to see if it’s stolen, Ivy said. The mystery was solved the next day when a colleague, Converse College associate professor Frazer Pajak, came to photograph the works for a catalogue. “He screamed out, ‘Oh, my God, the missing paintings. It’s Belle Baruch on Souriant.’ He’s just going up and down, his voice getting louder,” Ivy said.

Pajak was familiar with Baruch because he had been hired to do architectural sketches at Hobcaw Barony by the Belle Baruch Foundation.

Ivy found he also had seven large folio prints by John James Audubon and an engraving by James Watson called “North County Mails” in the batch of art.

The 11 works along with six paintings of Hobcaw Barony by artist Louis Aston Knight were stolen 13 years ago. Value of the art was said to be in excess of $2 million. The art was taken the day former curator Sammy McIntosh left Bellefield House and moved to Kingstree because his contract had not been renewed for cause.

About three weeks later, Williamsburg County deputies recovered the stolen print “Sporting Life” by John Leache, whose estimated value was about $12,000, along with other items belonging to the foundation from McIntosh’s house. He was charged with four counts of breach of trust with fraudulent intent, one count of receiving stolen goods and one count of filing a false police report, according to court records. He was sentenced to three years probation after pleading no contest.

But the valuable Munnings portrait of Belle and Souriant and two studies and the seven Audubon prints were lost — until three weeks ago.

The Baruch Foundation offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the art’s recovery. But the trail went cold until the “Antiques Roadshow” episode aired in February 2013. The producers promised new information about the theft, but there was none, Chastain said, just a string of false leads.

And plenty of questions still remain unanswered.

“We didn’t solve this mystery,” Ivy said. “We don’t know who stole them or where they’ve been. The remarkable thing is that they were all together.”

He said members of the family who consigned the contents of the house to be sold were distraught to find out the paintings were stolen. “They didn’t have any interest in doing anything except what was right,” Ivy said. “It hurt their feelings.”

Ivy said he did what he had to do once he discovered the art was stolen. “It’s not like we had a choice,” he said.

Chastain said the Audubon “elephant folios” from the original London printing have been sent to a conservator in Greensboro, N.C. Insects were found inside the frames and had damaged the paper. Print No. 1, a wild male turkey, is probably a total loss, he said. It was valued at $100,000. The oil paintings held up much better, he said. They had been conserved and left Bellefield in good condition. “The conservators in Greensboro know they’ve got work to do,” Chastain said. They will get the paper stabilized and submit a plan to the Belle Baruch Foundation for restoration. “We’ll see if we can pay for it,” Chastain said.

He hopes to recover the remaining six missing pieces and bring the collection together again. “Somebody out there knows where the other six are,” Chastain said. “Hopefully, they will come to the surface too.”

He plans to put the recovered art with other pieces from the Baruchs’ collection and form a traveling exhibit to tell their story. “I’d love to see it in Charleston, Florence, Charlotte,” Chastain said. “It could travel a long ways and be a great way to get our story out.”

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