Stolen Abbott Fuller Graves painting recovered; now on auction block

The Silent Partner aka The Organ Grinder by Abbott Fuller Graves 1894
The Silent Partner aka The Organ Grinder by Abbott Fuller Graves 1894

The Silent Partner”, by renowned Boston and Kennebunkport artist Abbott Fuller Graves, goes on the auction block next Thursday. From the fate of its involuntary title subject to its theft and subsequent recovery by the Santa Rosa California Sherriff’s Department, the 116 year old painting has an intriguing history.

By the time the heart-wrenching picture was completed in November of 1894, Abbott F. Graves was a household name in New England art circles. Best known for his artistry with flowers, Graves was making a good living for his family selling paintings and conducting his own school of art. His botanical design “The Eden” had appeared in Thomas Strahan & Co’s 1893 line of wallpapers and the painter had just finished illustrating a book, “Wildflower Sonnets by Emily Shaw Forman, his second. He had illustrated New Castle, Historic and Picturesque by John Albee, in 1884.

Graves displayed a growing interest in painting the human condition; the drama of simple country people engaged in their mundane daily lives.  On September 23, 1894 it was reported in the Boston Daily Globe, “Mr. Abbott Graves has taken a studio in Studio Building, which he has fitted up with an eye to the artistic and attractive arrangement which the instincts of an artist suggest. His sojourn at Kennebunkport, ME, the past season resulted in his securing some charming sketches of that picturesque locality.”

The first public exhibition of the painting was announced on Nov 11, 1894 in the Globe:  “The Boston Art Club will give its 51st exhibition, from Jan 18 to Feb 16, 1895.”

“Mr. Abbott Graves of the Studio building has just finished a large canvas which he entitles “The Silent Partner.” The picture is an original composition and surprisingly artistic; in fact the best piece of work in this line which the artist has accomplished. It represents the interior of a tenement, an Italian organ grinder sitting upon his instrument, the tambourine girl resting upon the floor with her hands to her face, both bemoaning the fate which has deprived them of their active partner, the dead monkey. The composition is well managed and the color scheme admirable.”

Preeminent Graves biographer, Joyce Butler recalls a story about the monkey in the painting, told to her by Miss Dorothy Buhler, whose father, artist Augustus Buhler, occupied a studio in the same building when “The Silent Partner” was painted.

“Graves “got” the dead monkey from an organ grinder. After completing the painting, Graves paid a “man on the street” to dispose of the animal’s body. It was not “done successfully” and the remains were traced to Graves causing him “some difficulty with the authorities.”

Comic actor, singer and playwright, Francis Wilson, who would later become the first President of Actor’s Equity, was moved by Graves’ new painting. The plight of the organ grinder whose grief is clearly combined with consternation over the loss of a business asset, reminded him of his own lean years as a player in a minstrel show.

“It is rare that an artist nowadays paint a pivotal picture – one that will turn the minds of people, make them reflective and more considerate of the common phases of life,” wrote a reporter for the Boston Post. “Surely Abbott Graves has touched a chord of nature which makes the whole world kin in a work that is destined to make a national reputation for him. Graves is an artist and is known far and wide for his flower paintings, but he sees and studies all sides of life, and in this recent work, entitled “The Silent Partner,” has struck the most pathetic incident that he has ever undertaken.”

“No wonder,” the reporter continued, “that the comedian, Francis Wilson, when he saw it, was impressed with its sad and touching pathos. Several days after having visited Graves he returned and remarked: “Mr. Graves, ever since I saw that picture it has haunted me. Whatever your price, I want it.”

Wilson still owned the painting in 1899 when it was exhibited in Chicago and Boston.

Almost 100 years later the “The Silent Partner” was in the news again but this time with a new name. An Abbott Graves painting identified by the owners as “The Organ Grinder” was stolen July 11, 1997 from a private home in Sebastolpol California. Nothing else was taken by the art thieves.

A report in Maine Antiques Digest valued the stolen painting at over $100,000 and a reward was offered for its safe return.  Detective Jose Avilla of the Sonoma County Sherriff’s Department handled the case.  In 2001, your “Old News” columnist reported the theft and posted a photograph of the painting on the Abbott Graves page of mykennebunks.com. After an unfruitful investigation the painting was declared a loss and Allstate Insurance Company paid the owners $65,000, the maximum amount allowable under the policy.

Last winter the Santa Rosa, California Sherriff’s department got a phone call from a man who claimed to know the whereabouts of a Graves painting titled “The Organ Grinder”.  He anonymously returned the painting to the Allstate Insurance Company, who in turn sent it to Mo Mansur of Insurance Asset Recovery, LLC, in California,  in hopes that some value could be realized from the painting.  Mr. Mansur shipped the painting to Shannon’s Auction House in Milford CT to be listed on their website for auction sale on April 29, 2010.  They assigned it a surprising sales estimate of $10,000 to $15,000.

International Interpol agents in London England, who frequently scan the internet for stolen art, had not received an update about the status of the painting when they came across the auction listing. They contacted the sellers demanding proof that the painting had been legitimately recovered.

Mr. Mansur in California, being aware of the mykennebunks website listing, contacted your columnist with the rest of the story.  After the discovery of the previously mentioned newspaper articles, it was concluded that the legitimately recovered painting was actually Abbott Graves’ famous work “The Silent Partner.”

Meanwhile, Kennebunk Historian and author, Joyce Butler, an Abbott Fuller Graves expert, had already contacted the auction house about the erroneous name associated with the painting.

It is our most fervent hope that next Thursday, a museum buyer or private Abbott Graves collector will bring “The Silent Partner” home to New England. We would also appreciate learning about the next chapter in the history of this poignant painting. Please email Sharon Cummins at sharonlynn@roadrunner.com

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