The Dutch Old Master paintings, one of which may be a Rembrandt, were left anonymously at New York's William Doyle Galleries on Tuesday, said Harry Parker III, director of museums for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. A note left with the paintings said they had been taken from the de Young.
They were stolen Christmas Eve 1978. The culprits were never caught. A fourth painting also taken that night, Harbor Scene by Willem van de Velde, was not returned.
At the time of the theft, Portrait of a Rabbi was considered an authentic Rembrandt and valued at $1 million. Experts have since said it likely was painted by one of Rembrandt's disciples. If Rembrandt had painted the painting, it would be worth $20 million, Parker said.
The paintings were left at the Doyle gallery on one of the days during which the auction house lets members of the public auction their art. The gallery's vice-president for European and American painting, Alan Fausel, noticed an unclaimed parcel after the gallery had cleared out and looked inside.
Fausel, who had once worked worked at the de Young, recognized the paintings and contacted Dr. Lynn Federle Orr, the fine arts curator of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. She flew to New York and identified the works as those taken from the de Young in 1978.
The paintings were in their frames but were "rather extensively damaged" by an apparent attempt to clean them, Parker said. One of them, Aert van der Neer's River Scene at Night (Harbor Scene), was returned in three pieces.
The other stolen painting was Interior of the Church of Saint Lawrence, Rotterdam, by Anthonie de Lorme. With the exception of the possible Rembrandt, the three others were worth a combined $75,000 at the time of the theft.
Authorities believe more than one thief slipped into the de Young through a skylight in 1978, then left by climbing the drawers of a 17th-century Dutch cabinet.
The FBI is still investigating the 1978 thefts. Parker said he expects the paintings to arrive in San Francisco next week, after which the Portrait of a Rabbi will be tested to reassess who actually painted it.
The M.H. de Young Memorial Museum will put images of the recovered paintings online. To visit the museum's site, click here.
by Ron Harris;