Andrew Wallace vividly recalls the email he received one Friday afternoon in May 2013 telling him that a sketchbook of famed Iowa artist Grant Wood was for sale at a Chicago fine arts auction house.
The auctioneer was looking for buyers and wondered if Wallace, manager of collections and exhibitions at Davenport's Figge Art Museum, might be interested, given that the Figge already has an extensive Grant Wood collection.
On reading the communication from Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, Wallace had two thoughts: First, why wasn't the sketchbook already in the Figge's collection? and, second, it should be.
Thus began an intense week of digging into old records, making phone calls and talking with colleagues in the art world. Wallace became convinced that the sketchbook by Wood (1891-1942), most famously known for his painting, "American Gothic," had been stolen in 1965-66 from the Figge's predecessor, the Davenport Municipal Art Gallery, and that it should be returned.
With the clock ticking toward a Sunday auction date, attorneys at Davenport's Lane & Waterman were engaged to possibly file for an injunction to stop the sale. But late Thursday afternoon of that week in 2013, Wallace learned that wouldn't be necessary. Leslie Hindman had decided to pull the sketchbook — which it was selling on consignment for an unidentified owner — from the auction.
And on Aug. 29 of this year — after about 15 months of back-and-forth negotiations between attorneys for the Figge and the sketchbook's owner — Wallace drove to Chicago and picked it up.
Sitting Friday in a storage room of the Figge, holding the precious sketchbook in his white-gloved hands, Wallace declined to say how much — if any — money was exchanged to get it back.
"There was an agreement of terms," he said.
Leslie Hindman Auctioneers had pegged the estimated sale price at $40,000 to $60,000.
Wallace puts puzzle together
Wallace had been working for the Figge for only four years when he learned of the impending auction.
He knew the museum had a large Grant Wood collection that included paintings as well as "ephemera," or items such as eye glasses, an easel, a pen, palettes and paint brushes.
The collection was purchased from Wood's sister, Nan Graham, in January 1965, but Wallace wasn't familiar with everything in it, and he certainly didn't know that anything was missing. That was not part of the institutional memory of current employees at the Figge.
But at about the same time he received the auctioneer's email, he serendipitously received an information request from a Wood scholar that sent Wallace digging into the Wood inventory. There, he "read on top of page 20A" that the collection from Wood's sister included "a small sketchbook of ideas for a memorial window."
Those words were almost identical to those used in the auctioneer's description. The memorial window was being built for the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids.
Wallace began calling Wood scholars to see if they knew of any other sketchbooks. They did not.
He then consulted a different set of records at the Figge and found a notation from a curator in 1979 that a sketchbook was missing from the Wood collection.
"That, coupled with the fact that no (other) known sketchbook existed convinced me that I was correct," he said.
But without a picture, how would he convince the auction house?
"Wednesday morning, I had an epiphany that in hindsight you might say, 'Wow, that was pretty stupid, why didn't you think of that sooner?'"
Every piece of "ephemera" in the Figge's Wood collection was identified with a little label of masking tape that Nan Graham had applied. If the sketchbook really was the Figge's, it should have such a label.
The photo from the auction house was of the sketchbook's front, and it had no label. And the auction house declined to send a picture of the back. Wallace, however, had one other avenue.
In 2010, the sketchbook had been loaned by the owner to the Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial Building where it was photographed by R. Tripp Evans, author of the 2010 biography "Grant Wood: A Life."
Wallace emailed Evans. Did he still have his pictures, particularly the back cover of the book?
"He said he didn't know, but would get back to me," Wallace said. "This was Wednesday.
"At 6 a.m. Thursday in my inbox, I had an email that there was a place on the (back of the) book where a label has clearly been removed."
This was the proof Wallace was looking for. And he was sure that if push came to shove, a scientific analysis of the adhesive would show a match between the adhesive on the sketchbook and other items in the Figge collection.
Why didn't people know of the theft?
So, after nearly 50 years, a sketchbook that current employees of the Figge didn't know was missing has finally come home.
Why didn't earlier employees look for it or report it stolen?
"The sad part for us in the present is we can only speculate what people did or tried to do at the time," Wallace said.
What he determined is this: At the time the collection was purchased in early 1965, the art gallery was a small place with perhaps five employees and a lot going on. Cataloging the collection took more than a year, and at times, objects were left unattended in gallery classrooms with little more security than a lock.
Also during this time, many groups of people came in to view the collection. Wallace thinks the sketchbook was stolen by a Maquoketa, Iowa, man — now deceased — who sold it to Kennedy Galleries in New York in 1966. Wallace got the Maquoketa man's name from a recent would-be bidder who had obtained the provenance, or origin, of the work.
In 1975, Kennedy Galleries sold the sketchbook to a resident of the Washington, D.C., area who held it until 2013 when he tried to sell it through Leslie Hindman.
"There was no malevolence there," Wallace said of the East Coast buyer. "It (the sketchbook) was represented to him as free and clear."
As Wallace held the sketchbook on Friday, he said that, in philosophical terms, he thinks his role in the book's retrieval was his "purpose at the Figge — to right a wrong."
"If there was one thing I was meant to do at the Figge, this was it," he said.
"It's important," he said, referring to the sketchbook. "It belongs to the city of Davenport, to the state of Iowa, to the world. It shouldn't be in private hands."