In November 2006, writer David Rieff hired Charles (Bill) Hoffman to move dozens of pieces of art from the upstate town of Kingston down to Chelsea, including several original prints of photographs taken by Annie Leibovitz and a bunch of paintings that had belonged to his late parents, famed American essayist Susan Sontag and sociologist Philip Rieff. Among them was a portrait of a stuffy-looking British Lord, Portrait of Lock Rollinson of Chadlington, Oxfordshire, by Allan Ramsay. Something about that old painting caught Mr. Hoffman’s eye. So instead of putting it in the back of his moving truck with everything else, he tucked it behind the driver’s seat and kept it for himself.
Mr. Hoffman, 45, would not fit the Hollywood image of a sophisticated art thief. A New Jersey native, he moved to Kingston about 20 years ago and now makes his living doing odd jobs such as “picking up someone’s garbage or junk,” as the message on his cell phone announces.
And if you asked him, he’d say he wasn’t a thief at all.
“[Mr. Rieff] pointed out the stuff he wanted moved, and as for any of the rest of it, he said I should bring it to the dump or keep it for myself,” Mr. Hoffman said in a telephone interview last year. That stuff included dozens of paintings, framed photographs and boxes filled with books and other mementos that Mr. Rieff had placed in storage after the deaths of his parents, Sontag in 2004 and Rieff earlier in 2006.
“I kept this painting because I liked the way it looked, and an old pair of binoculars and a couple of books,” Mr. Hoffman said.
Yet if Mr. Hoffman had simply liked the painting-had taken it home, hung it over his fireplace and admired it while sipping cocoa-he may, in fact, not find himself in the position he’s currently in: under investigation by the F.B.I. Agents are looking into not only how Mr. Hoffman gained possession of the painting, but also whether he may be the first person in memory to have hood-winked Sotheby's into auctioning an allegedly stolen piece of art on his own behalf.
As it turns out, Mr. Rieff, through his lawyers F. Gant McCloud and David Glynn, denies that Mr. Hoffman was ever told that he could take anything from the storage units; Mr. Hoffman was told he should discard some cardboard boxes filled with old newspapers and a few pieces of broken furniture, but that was it.
AFTER STORING THE painting for a couple of months in a shed outside his home, Mr. Hoffman decided to try to sell it. His first order of business was to determine its value, so he secured an appointment with an appraiser in New York, whom he had seen on a TV show about antiques. The appraiser, whose name Mr. Hoffman does not remember, told him the painting, made in 1769, was an original by Ramsay, who specialized in painting portraits of the British upper class. The appraiser also said the painting was in good condition.
Mr. Hoffman’s next step was to set up an appointment at Sotheby’s; in March or April 2007, he brought the painting to the auction house’s New York headquarters. There, according to Sotheby’s officials, the painting was inspected by the lead specialist in older British paintings.
Of course, Sotheby’s had to take steps to ensure that the painting was, in fact, Mr. Hoffman’s. According to Sotheby’s spokeswoman Diana Phillips, Mr. Hoffman would have been asked the circum-stances of his ownership of the painting and to provide any documentation to prove it. A Sotheby’s official, who asked not to be identified because of the ongoing criminal investigation, said Mr. Hoffman told the auction house’s inspector that the painting had been in his family’s possession “for some time,” but that he had no documentation to attest to the ownership.
In an interview, Mr. Hoffman insisted he said no such thing to Sotheby’s. He said that he told the Sotheby’s inspector how Mr. Rieff had given him permission to take the painting a few months before. He added that he was asked to sign an agreement with Sotheby’s that attested to his being the proper owner of the painting and agreeing to compensate the auction house if it were later proven that he had defrauded it.
Sotheby’s spokeswoman Ms. Phillips, however, said that the auction house would have immediately contacted Mr. Rieff if Mr. Hoffman had told its inspector of how he had gotten possession of the painting. In fact, Mr. Rieff had already contracted with Sotheby’s to sell some of the other valuables belonging to his late father, Mr. Rieff said in a telephone interview.
THE ART WORLD has long lacked a universal or even commonly accepted way of proving ownership of lesser paintings. While a masterpiece will possess a “provenance” that will detail the history of its ownership, auction houses and galleries are often asked to sell works valued at under $1 million with the barest of documentation. Still, the one step that every major auction house and most gal-leries will take before putting any piece up for bids is to check with the Art Loss Register.
With offices in New York, London and four other European cities, the register maintains a database with the identities of more than 100,000 paintings and other works of art that have been listed as stolen by their owners. Sotheby’s officials stated that the auction house checked with the register to determine if the Ramsay was listed either as missing or stolen. But since Mr. Rieff was unaware that the painting was missing until contacted by a reporter more than a year later, it was not listed on the register’s database of stolen pieces.
So the auction would go on. To take advantage of the portrait’s having been painted by an English master, Sotheby’s decided to have it auctioned at its New Bond Street office in London on June 6, 2007. According to the Sotheby’s catalog for the auction of 100 or so “Important British Paintings,” as the collection was called, the Ramsay was expected to draw between $25,000 and $35,000, as the painting, held in a gilt wood frame, seemed to have weathered the two centuries in relatively good shape.
“The canvas has been lined. The painting is stable and is in need of no further attention,” potential bidders were informed by the catalog. “Examination under ultraviolet light reveals a thick var-nish which obscures a clear reading. There is evidence of some repaint along the lower right hand portion of the painted oval. There is evidence of some retouching in the sitter’s face. It is not possi-ble to penetrate the varnish layer with ultraviolet light, but there would appear to be evidence of older retouching in the background and in the sitter’s face.”
Mr. Hoffman decided to attend the auction to see what fruit his painting might bear. With his 70-year-old mother beside him, Mr. Hoffman flew to London to watch as the 18th-century portrait, which documents would later show had been owned by Mr. Rieff’s father since 1970, was auctioned off.
Mr. Hoffman recalls there being a brief flurry of bids coming in over the phone, with the winner at $47,000.
“It was pretty exciting being there, watching the whole thing,” he recalled. After Sotheby’s took its customary 15 percent commission, the auction house mailed him a check for about $39,000, Mr. Hoffman said. He used the money “to fix up a few things around the house.”
THE F.B.I. INVESTIGATION will provide the last word on whether the painting was rightfully Mr. Hoffman’s to sell, but others have disputed Mr. Hoffman’s version of events.
Two men who assisted Mr. Hoffman with moving Mr. Rieff’s valuables from the two Kingston-area storage units did not remember Mr. Hoffman’s ever getting permission to take anything from the self-storage units for himself.
“All I can remember is him taking that one painting and putting it behind the drivers’ seat in the pickup truck we were using and he says, ‘I like this one. I’m going to take it for myself,'” said James Van Slyke. “I asked him what he was doing, and he told me I should mind my own business.” (Van Slyke died of lung cancer in early November.)
The second helper backed up Van Slyke’s account but declined to speak on the record.
Even if Mr. Hoffman has to return the money he made from auctioning off the painting or, worse, gets prosecuted under the federal law that prohibits interstate transportation of stolen goods worth more than $5,000, there’s no doubt that the Portrait of Lock Rollinson of Chadlington, Oxfordshire provided him on a memorable journey. He says he had never before seen an auction or even visited Europe.
For Sotheby’s, Mr. Hoffman is memorable for another reason: “This is the only time I can think of when someone has allegedly stolen something and soon thereafter has consigned it himself to public auction,” said Jonathan Osloff, North American general counsel for Sotheby’s.