Was Jackie Kennedy's Portrait Stolen From Grey Gardens? A Beale Nephew Says Yes

The ownership of a portrait of a young Jacqueline Bouvier by a relatively unknown painter that was reputedly stolen from Grey Gardens in the 1970s has been challenged in a new lawsuit. T.E. McMorrow photos

The ownership of a small portrait of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis that was painted when she was young is being disputed in a federal lawsuit.

The suit, filed on Feb. 8 in United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn on behalf of Bouvier Beale Jr., alleges that the painting, by Irwin D. Hoffman, which is now at the Terry Wallace Gallery in East Hampton Village, was the property of Edith Bouvier Beale and remains the property of her estate.

Ms. Beale, known as Little Edie, was the subject, along with her mother, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, of the 1975 documentary "Grey Gardens." The film focused on the two women, once socialites, living at their dilapidated estate on West End Road in East Hampton Village. Mr. Beale is Little Edie's nephew and the executor of her estate; she died in 2002.

According to the suit, the painting was commissioned by the future first lady's father, John Vernou Bouvier III, in 1950. He gave it to his sister, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, before his death in 1957.

The suit claims that the painting was stolen from the Grey Gardens estate sometime in the 1960s or 1970s, and that the theft was never reported because of the combative relationship between the two women and Suffolk County and East Hampton Village officials. The Suffolk Health Department had raided Grey Gardens in 1971 and threatened to evict the two women because of the squalid conditions there, as well as numerous building code violations found by inspectors.

Mr. Wallace's attorney, Todd Wengrovsky, said Monday that the Beales are demanding the painting without showing any proof of their claim of ownership.

"If they walked in here right now and showed me a police report, I would give them the painting," Mr. Wallace, the gallery owner, said on Monday.

Mr. Wallace specializes in the work of East End artists, as well as traditional American paintings, though he does not generally deal in portraiture. He has a huge collection of paintings and rotates them from storage into his gallery. "I would never deal with a stolen painting," he said.

He said that he has consulted with both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the East Hampton Village Police Department on art forgeries and related criminal behavior in the art world.

Terry Wallace, in his East Hampton gallery, bought the Jacqueline Bouvier painting from a legitimate antiques dealer and says that there is no evidence that it had been stolen from the Beale house on West End Road.

The suit claims that, before her death in 2002, "Little Edie reminded Beale Jr. and his wife, Eva Beale, that various items had been stolen from Grey Gardens over the years, including a portrait of Jackie."

The suit states that Eva Beale saw the painting on display in Mr. Wallace's gallery in 2004 and asked about it. Mr. Wallace told her that he had purchased it some years earlier from a reputable dealer who had since died, according to the suit prepared by Cahill, Cossu, Noh and Robinson of Manhattan.

Mr. Wallace does not recall meeting Eva Beale in 2004, and said it would have been unusual for him to display a portrait in his gallery.

In July 2016, Eva Beale, the suit claims, saw an issue of Hamptons magazine from 1998 in which there was an article on Mr. Wallace and the painting. It was at that point, the suit says, that Eva and Bouvier Beale, who live in Mill Valley, Calif., decided that the painting was the same one that they believe had been stolen from Grey Gardens. The Beales run a lifestyle brand and line of products inspired by the Grey Gardens film and lingering pop culture mystique.

Mr. Beale wrote Mr. Wallace a letter in 2016 describing the painting as "a possibly misappropriated work." Its value, according to the suit, exceeds $75,000.

Mr. Wallace said that he purchased the painting from an antiques store in East Hampton Village around 1988. He said he saw it hanging there during the previous fall and had offered to buy it, along with another painting in the shop, for $1,500. The owner of the store initially refused.

After that, he would return to the shop every few weeks. Eventually the owner relented, and the paintings were then his. Mr. Wallace said that the portrait was on public display in the antiques store for at least six months before he purchased it, which would have been odd if the painting was indeed stolen.

The painting measures 12 by 14 inches. According to AskArt, an online service that catalogs auction prices for art, paintings by Mr. Hoffman, who died in 1989, are of low monetary value. The AskArt database shows 10 examples of his work being auctioned since 2010, fetching prices ranging from $177 to $850. Half of the 10 works did not sell. None featured a celebrity, however.

Mr. Wallace questioned the value put on the painting in the lawsuit, saying that there are two key factors that decide the value of a portrait: the subject and the artist. He agreed that the subject matter, a childlike Jacqueline Bouvier, would certainly boost the work's value. But the artist's poor track record at auction would argue against the $75,000 valuation.

Megan E. Noh, the attorney who is handling the suit, said in an email Monday that "the estate sees this as a matter of principle." She defended the valuation of the portrait, pointing out prices that were obtained in Sotheby's 1996 auction of the Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis estate, in which "even everyday items sold for large sums."

"The market has repeatedly indicated that the association between Jacqueline Bouvier, members of the Kennedy family, and other iconic American figures results in a significant premium above the intrinsic value of such items particularly where, as here, the items come directly from the family," Ms. Noh said.

Mr. Wallace said that the painting is not for sale, and that it is the responsibility of any art dealer to turn over a work that he knows to be stolen. "I would not jeopardize my reputation by handling a stolen work," he said.