|Pablo Picasso "Mother and Child by a Fountain, 1901. The Met. by Travis Simpkins|
Pablo Picasso's "Mother and Child by a Fountain": Stolen, Recovered and Lost Again.
A Visual Footnote to the 1972 Worcester Art Museum Heist
by Travis Simpkins
Painted in 1901, “Mother and Child by a Fountain” summarizes Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period in cool monochrome, loose brushwork and small scale. Although works from this early period are highly prized now, the artist had some trouble selling them at the time. This small painting, however, greatly enchanted Schofield Thayer, the eccentric publisher of The Dialliterary magazine, and he became the third owner of the piece in 1923. Between 1919 and 1924, Thayer amassed a formidable collection of Modern Art, consisting of 450 masterworks by Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Lachaise, Munch, Chagall and others. Eager to share the works with the public, he entrusted his collection to the Worcester Art Museum on a long-term loan, with the implied expectation that WAM would be gifted the collection upon his death. “Mother and Child by a Fountain” arrived at the Worcester Art Museum in 1931, and hung there undisturbed for four decades.
On May 17, 1972, under the direction of Florian “Al” Monday, two armed thieves entered the Worcester Art Museum during open hours and removed four valuable works from the walls of the European Galleries. Rembrandt’s “Saint Bartholomew” was the primary goal of the heist, but two works by Gauguin, “Brooding Woman” and “Mademoiselle Manthey”, and Picasso’s “Mother and Child by a Fountain” were targeted as well. As the thieves made their haphazard escape, they shot a security guard near the front door when he hindered their exit. The four stolen works made a few unglamorous stops over the course of the next few weeks, including Al Monday’s drop-ceiling, the trunk of a car and a hayloft at a contaminated pig farm in Rhode Island. The tireless efforts of the FBI and Worcester Police, spurred by tips from informants, led to all four of the stolen works being returned to the Worcester Art Museum (read Anthony Amore’s book, “Stealing Rembrandts,” for further details), and “Mother and Child by a Fountain” was placed on view once again.
A decade later in 1982, in an ironic twist, “Mother and Child by a Fountain” was removed from the Worcester Art Museum yet again. This time, however, the loss was both permanent and legal. Unbeknownst to museum administration, Schofield Thayer had written WAM out of his will. When he died in 1982, it was dictated that his collection was to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Apparently, several decades earlier, Thayer had taken extreme offense to a disparaging comment made about his collection (it had been called “an intellectual sewer”). He simply amended his will, keeping his discontentment to himself. A subsequent legal battle was decided in the Met’s favor, and the Worcester Art Museum had to relinquish the Dial Collection. Sadly, because WAM had planned on inheriting all of those Modern works, they had built the rest of their collection around it. As a result, the loss of the Dial Collection left a large gap in their holdings of 20th Century Art.
Today, Picasso’s “Mother and Child by a Fountain” resides in a storage area at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, currently off view.