Irish Painting Stolen in Mysterious Theft Recovered After Four-Year Legal Battle

Art Recovery International is pleased to announce the successful recovery of an important Irish painting, stolen under mysterious circumstances from a private residence in Belfast in 2008.
Bringing in the Turf by William Conor is considered among the leading works in the Irish folk art movement, popularised by portrayals of working-class life in Ulster. It was purchased in 1948 by Frank and Turid Malpress and was displayed in their family home for 50 years.In 2003, the Malpress family received warning from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) that thieves were known to be operating in their area and that the Malpress collection may be at risk. In an innovative plan, the PSNI arranged for copies of two paintings to be created and installed in place of the originals, acting as bait for potential thieves while the family were away. When no theft was attempted, the originals were replaced and the fakes destroyed.

In 2008, Turid Malpress, now 95 years old, fell victim to a home-invasion and two artworks were stolen. The thieves left a token sum of money in the family home: a method common to thieves known as ‘knockers’. Mrs Malpress immediately called her grandson and the PSNI to report the crime and complete an incident report. The location of the paintings remained a mystery for 5 years.

In May 2013, Bringing in the Turf was offered for sale at Whyte’s auction house in Dublin and, with no claim to the painting revealed by the saleroom’s due diligence processes, it was sold to a collector based in Chicago, USA.  In August 2013, Robin Thompson, the victim’s son-in-law, noticed the sale record for Bringing in the Turf listed on Whyte’s website and contacted his insurance company who turned to Art Recovery International to recover the painting.

Christopher A. Marinello, CEO of Art Recovery International, led recovery efforts by bringing together the saleroom’s owner, Ian Whyte, along with representatives from the PSNI, An Guarda Sionchana and the FBI. Following almost four years of negotiations, Ian Whyte agreed to return the stolen Conor to the Malpress family, over nine years after the theft.

Christopher A. Marinello said: “The recovery of this painting could not have happened without the extraordinary efforts of FBI Special Agent Luigi Mondini. A member of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, Agent Mondini went above and beyond the call of duty to aid two foreign police forces and the Belfast based victims in this extremely complex matter.  This case shows that auction houses need to perform due diligence, not only on the artwork consigned for sale, but on the consignors themselves.  Ian Whyte’s eventual cooperation was a welcome turn of events.”

Robin Thompson added, ‘We are absolutely delighted to have ‘Bringing in the Turf’ back in our family over 9 years after the original theft.  This would not have been possible without the professional expertise of Chris Marinello, and his team at Art Recovery International, and their persistence in the matter when all seemed to be lost. We are eternally grateful to them for their supreme efforts.”

The Malpress family are still seeking the other stolen painting by Daniel O’Neil, entitled The Prodigal Son. (Below)


For further information or comment, please contact:

Jerome Hasler
Media Liaison, Art Recovery International
[email protected]
0044 (0) 7824 553 795

Notes to editors:

About Art Recovery International

Art Recovery International provides research, dispute resolution and art recovery services, offering clients expert and ethical advice on the management, acquisition and return of cultural property. More information regarding art recovery services can be found at or follow our Twitter account @artrecovery for regular art crime and cultural heritage news and updates.

About William Conor

William Conor (1881-1968) was a Belfast born artist, celebrated for his warm and sympathetic portrayals of working-class life in Ulster. Conor studied at the Government School of Design in Belfast in the 1890s. He then worked as an apprentice poster designer. By 1912 William was in Paris and later exhibited in the Paris Salon.

In 1920 he moved to London and there met and socialised with such artists as Sir John Lavery and Augustus John. He was a member of the Chelsea Arts Club and exhibited at the Royal Academy, it was at this time that he painted the official opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament by the King and Queen. William Conor became the first member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and in 1952 he was awarded an OBE.

His work principally in watercolour and crayon is in practically all the Irish collections of note. More than 50 works of his are now in the permanent collections of the Ulster Museum.

Venetian masterpiece by Italian artist Michele Marieschi to be offered at Sotheby’s this summer

18th century painting seized by Nazi officials comes to the market following successful restitution settlement

LONDON/VENICE 28 May 2017 – Today, Sotheby’s and Art Recovery International announce the sale of a rare eighteenth century oil painting by Italian artist Michele Marieschi, as part of its flagship London Old Master evening sale on 5 July. La Punta della Dogana e san Giorgio Maggiore, comes to the market following a successful restitution settlement, led by Art Recovery International, between the current possessors and the heirs of the previous owners – the Graf family who last saw the painting in 1938, before they fled Nazi occupied Austria. Following over 15 years of negotiations, the work will be offered this summer with an estimate of £500,000 – 700,000.

The Graf family

Originally acquired by Heinrich (Heinz) and Anna Maria (Anny) Graf in 1937, the painting hung in the the family’s Vienna apartment – a highlight of their small but refined collection. In March 1938, the family’s lives were upended with the German annexation of Austria. Ousted from his job and under threat from the growing tensions under a dictatorial regime, Heinz and his young family were forced to flee their home. In anticipation of the forced emigration, which by then had become so commonplace in Vienna, all of the Graf’s possessions were put into storage, to be forwarded once the family settled into a new home. Having paid the substantial ‘exit tax’ demanded by the Germans, the Grafs made their way first to Italy, and then several months later to France, where they were joined by their two grandmothers in Quillan, a small town in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Following the outbreak of war in 1939, Heinz was confined to the notorious Camp Gurs in Southwest France – where Jews of non-French nationality were interned. Anny worked desperately to secure her husband’s release (she too was interned for a brief period), finally managing to obtain visas for the United States for all but one member of the family. Required by the terms of his Gurs camp release to leave the country immediately, Heinz was forced to leave his family behind and travel to the safety of Portugal alone. The family eventually reunited in Lisbon months later, sailing together to the United States and reaching New York on 26 May 1941.

Settling in Queens, the family rebuilt their lives, with Heinz, now ‘Henry’, finding employment again as an investment banker. Attempting to recover the belongings that they had placed in storage, Henry and Anny undertook extensive correspondence with the United States occupation forces in Germany, but to no avail. It later came to light that their possessions, including this Marieschi painting and portraits of Anny’s parents by Umberto Veruda, had been seized by the Nazi regime in 1940 and subsequently sold at auction. Despite years of searching, all efforts to locate their possessions failed, with both Henry and Anny passing away without having ever seen their paintings again.

The current Possessor

The exact whereabouts of the painting from 1940 to 1952 is not known. However, in 1952 it was acquired by Edward Speelman who purchased the painting from Henry James Alfred Spiller (1890 – 1966), a frequent purchaser at auction during WWII.

The current possessor bought the painting in 1953, unaware of the painting’s history and has had unbroken enjoyment of the work for more than 60 years. In 2015, the decision was made to reach out to the Graf family to resolve all title issues before moving forward with a sale.

Following the discovery of this painting nearly 15 years ago, and nearly 80 years after Henry and Anny Graf last saw the painting, a settlement between the heirs of the Graf family and the current possessors was successfully negotiated by Art Recovery International last December, leading to the subsequent sale of this remarkable work this summer.

The Painting

Painted in 1739 – 40, La Punta della Dogana e san Giorgio Maggiore is a rare example of a unique work by Marieschi, who often created multiple paintings from the same viewpoint. Depicting the Dogana with the Church of San Giorgio across the Bacino in the distance, and animated by a host of colourful figures and gondolas in the foreground, this painting is notable for its broad panorama and the depth of its composition, and is one of Marieschi’s most successful works.  Encouraged by the success of the great Venetian artist Canaletto in the genre of vedute, Marieschi adopted a very personal and instantly recognisable style in the genre, characterised by rapid brushwork, richness of colour, and shimmering effects of light.

Richard Aronowitz, Sotheby’s Head of Department for Restitution, said, “Having followed the story and been involved in the discussions of this marvellous painting for more than a decade, I am delighted that its turbulent history has now been resolved with a settlement between the Graf heirs and the current possessors, and that it will be offered as one of the highlights of Sotheby’s summer sale. Restitution settlements are understandably difficult to resolve, so it is always very rewarding when you are able to help bring a case to a positive conclusion.”

Henry and Anny Graf’s son-in-law, Stephen Tauber, commented wistfully, “Michele Marieschi created this magnificent view of the Dogana to give pleasure. We are sad that Heinz and Anny Graf enjoyed that privilege for just a few months after they had bought the painting with so much anticipation. We are glad, however, that after so many years members of our family are finally able to become reacquainted with the painting, which will surely give pleasure to others for years to come.

Christopher Marinello, Founder of Art Recovery International said, “I commend the parties involved in this decades old dispute in reaching an amicable accord. I strongly encourage collectors, dealers, and institutions to bring known or suspected Nazi-looted works out from the shadows and resolve these disputes discreetly without the need for costly and embarrassing litigation. Facing these issues head on takes courage and, in some cases, sacrifice on the part of a good acquirer. However, leaving these issues for the next generation to deal with is never the answer.

Michele Marieschi, La Punta della Dogana e san Giorgio Maggiore, will be offered at Sotheby’s London Old Master Evening Sale on 5 July 2017.

Art Recovery International (“ARI”) specialises in recovering stolen and looted works of art. With over $500M worth of artwork recovered for victims and disputes resolved worldwide, ARI is unique in providing creative solutions to complex art related title disputes. ARI works with law enforcement, dealers, collectors, museums and insurance companies in discreetly mediating and resolving issues without the need for litigation.  ARI works closely with the non-profit and non-conflicted ARTIVE Database ( and encourages theft victims and parties involved in title disputes to record their claims with ARTIVE. ARTIVE is fast becoming the central checkpoint and primary due diligence tool for the protection of cultural heritage. Objects located by the ARTIVE Database can be referred to lawyers, law enforcement, or any number of art recovery specialists or mediators.












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