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Hamptons Life

Feb 13, 2018 12:33 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Lawsuit Claims Art Dealer's Portrait Of Jackie Kennedy Onassis Was Stolen From Grey Gardens

Feb 13, 2018 1:06 PM

The estate of Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale is suing an East Hampton art dealer, claiming that a portrait of Jackie Kennedy Onassis that he possesses was stolen from the famed estate Grey Gardens decades ago, and demanding the painting’s return.

The art dealer, Wallace Gallery proprietor Terry Wallace, says that the painting was not stolen and that he will show its provenance, or record of ownership, when he mounts his defense in court.

The lawsuit, filed on Thursday, February 8, in U.S. District Court by Bouvier Beale Jr.—who is the nephew of Ms. Beale and the executor of her estate, as well as the first cousin, once removed, of Ms. Onassis—states that the portrait in question was painted by Irwin Hoffman in 1950. Ms. Onassis, then known by her maiden name, Jacqueline Bouvier, was 19 years old at the time, three years before she would marry future president John F. Kennedy.

According to the lawsuit, Ms. Onassis’s father, John Vernou “Black Jack” Bouvier III, commissioned the painting, and he gave it to his sister Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale before his death. The painting was located at Grey Gardens—the subject of a 1975 documentary of the same name about the deteriorating East Hampton estate and the eccentric Beales—until the late 1960s, when it disappeared, the lawsuit states. It further states that when Big Edie died in 1977, the ownership of the portrait would have passed to Little Edie, who died in 2002.

The lawsuit points to a September 1998 article in Hamptons magazine, in which Mr. Wallace told a writer that he purchased the painting from an unnamed dealer who had possessed it since the mid-1970s.

Mr. Wallace said on Monday that the article arose when a writer he knew asked him if he had anything unusual that she could write about, and he shared that he owned the portrait of a teenage Ms. Onassis.

He questioned why—if the family knew for 20 years that he had the portrait—did the estate start asking for it only in 2016. He would not identify who he bought it from, but said that he will reveal the provenance when he files his response to the lawsuit.

“I can only tell you a few things,” Mr. Wallace said. “First, I bought the painting in the late ’80s. Second, I’ve been in the same location in East Hampton for 25 years. I have a lot of world-famous clients. I wouldn’t risk my reputation and my business for one painting. The other thing is that, if someone could prove to me without any question that it was their property, I would gladly give it back to them, because I have a responsibility—an ethical responsibility.”

The lawsuit states that Mr. Beale’s wife, Eva Beale, visited the Wallace Gallery in 2004 and saw the painting, and in 2016 while archiving Little Edie’s personal records she came across a copy of the Hamptons magazine article and realized that it referenced a painting that Little Edie had said was stolen during a burglary, according to the court filing. Mr. Wallace refused requests to divulge the provenance of the painting, but he told the family that it was “impeccable” and “confidential,” the filing states.

Mr. Wallace said on Tuesday that he inquired with the police department many years ago and was informed that there was no record that the painting was stolen. “If it had been stolen, I would have returned it,” he said.

But according to the lawsuit, the theft of valuables from Grey Gardens, including the painting, was never reported to the police because the Beales had a contentious relationship with the local government over the condition of the estate, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that Mr. Wallace “has possessed, displayed, and held out for purchase” the portrait at his eponymous gallery in East Hampton, which he said is not the case, and he doubts that anyone saw it on display in 2004, as alleged.

“I never really try to sell it,” he said. “I don’t sell portraits. I sell landscapes, I sell seascapes … but I don’t generally sell portraits. It’s just that I bought this painting with another painting. And so, have just had it squirreled away, actually. I put it away, I didn’t even think about it for years.”

The summons filed by the estate’s lawyers on February 8 states that Mr. Wallace has 21 days to respond, or face a default judgment.

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