What Really Happened to Brown University's "King Philip IV?"

June 7, 2020

 

The story of a painting from the Circle of John Singer Sargent of King Philip IV is the subject of an intriguing Twitter thread by Dr. Victoria Reed, the Curator of Provenance at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. A close examination of the recent history of the painting begs some examination. 


It's a well-weathered axiom of investigators that, when it comes to a crime, there are no coincidences. The journey of this particular painting puts that theorem to the test. 

 

In 1957, the portrait was given to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and entered into the Ivy League institution's University Portrait Collection, which today boasts a catalogue of over 300 works by portraitists including Sargent, Rembrandt Peale, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. 

 

There it stayed until sometime between 1983 and 1991, when, during a campus-wide survey, the University (finally) noticed that King Philip IV had vanished. Given that Brown couldn't provide any better information than a vast eight-year window during which it might have been mishandled or, more likely, stolen, there was little researchers or investigators could do to determine what had become of the work.

 

Then, as 1998 came to a close, the painting re-emerged in the form of a gift to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It's not uncommon for institutions such as the MFA to receive year-end gifts, especially as donors look for ways to reduce their imminent tax burdens.


But here's where the "coincidence" comes into play: the donor of the painting was a professor at Brown University, Dwight B. Heath, and his wife Anna. In what must have been the most incredible luck, Heath claimed that the painting was purchased at a yard sale in nearby southeastern Massachusetts by his mother, unaware that it had been stolen from her son's employer. She later gave it to Dwight in 1993. Prof. Heath's tale cannot be independently confirmed.

 

Imagine--a painting stolen from Brown somehow made its way into the hands of a professor from Brown. What are the odds? 

 

In 2015, Brown University notified the MFA that it had learned that the King Philip IV portrait was in its collection. The institutions checked and confirmed distinguishing characteristics of the painting and its frame and, in 2016, the museum deacessioned the painting and returned it to Brown. 

 

The MFA points out that in the decade between 1998 and 2008, the Heaths donated 26 objects to them. Professor Heath, who was the subject of a fawning piece by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker in 2010, has since passed away.

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