Anne Hutchinson devoted the last years of her life to tracking down and laying claim to paintings created more than a century ago.
The Spokane woman painstakingly searched rolls of microfiche from the Smithsonian Institution, leafed through hundreds of pounds of newspaper articles and traveled to art museums in obscure places.
For several years, Hutchinson spent up to 10 hours a day researching her ancestor, Theodore Robinson, and battling to regain paintings she felt belong to the family. Her brother, Spokane businessman Tom Hutchinson, picked up the fight after she died of leukemia last year.
The family’s most recent volley of lawsuits was fired Monday in U.S. District Court in Ohio, demanding the return of three Robinson paintings now on display in Cincinnati and Youngstown. The paintings are valued at more than $1.8 million.
“My sister really is the expert,” said Tom Hutchinson, who owns 4 Seasons Coffee Roasting Co., 222 N. Howard. “She carried this thing the whole way. She dedicated her life to it. I wish I knew one-hundredth of what she does.”
He’s learning, with the help of Joan Godlove, a Tulsa, Okla., lawyer who’s worked with the family off and on since 1980, amassing an encyclopedic knowledge of Robinson and his art.
There’s a maze of lawsuits revolving around Robinson that dates back 16 years. The outcome could have far-reaching implications on the authenticity of paintings hanging on museum walls.
It’s been tedious work.
“It’s essentially like looking at a haystack,” Godlove said. “You don’t know where the needle is.”
The lawsuits maintain that some of Robinson’s more than 500 paintings were sold after his death by people other than his heirs. Earlier lawsuits also accuse other Robinson descendants of selling some paintings out from underneath the Hutchinson branch.
Dubbed the father of American impressionism, Robinson was a good friend of Claude Monet. He left behind a legacy of mystery and a New York studio overflowing with paintings when he died 100 years ago. He was 43 when he suffered a fatal asthma attack.
His only heirs were two brothers, one of whom was Hamline Robinson, the great-grandfather of Anne and Tom Hutchinson.
Some of Robinson’s paintings were sold in an estate sale, some split between the brothers. Still others were never accounted for. These have popped up throughout the decades, as donations to museums and in collections. Some sport signatures that Godlove and Anne Hutchinson purport to be forgeries, and others appear to have been finished by painters other than Robinson.
The lawsuits filed Monday want to strip the paintings “Road by the Mill” and “Canine Patient” off the walls of the Cincinnati Art Museum and “Watching the Cows” from the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown.
The Cincinnati Art Museum considers both paintings to be part of its permanent collection. A spokeswoman has refused to comment on the lawsuits.
The Butler Institute couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
“Watching the Cows” and “Road by the Mill” were allegedly part of a traveling art show when Robinson died.
“Road by the Mill” was being shown at the Cincinnati museum in 1897 but then stayed in the possession of the museum’s director instead of returning to the artist’s estate, according to the lawsuit.
“Watching the Cows” was allegedly sold to a man for $100 in Cleveland after the Cincinnati show, the lawsuit states. The Butler Institute bought the painting from Kennedy Galleries, a New York art dealer that acquired the painting sometime after 1946.
“Canine Patient,” better known as “The Girl with the Dog,” was allegedly picked up by a private collector after Robinson’s death. The painting was given to the Cincinnati museum in 1970 by the wife of a New York art dealer.
The first Robinson lawsuit was filed in Evansville, Ind., in 1980 against another wing of Robinson descendants that supposedly sold some paintings without the Hutchinson family’s knowledge or consent. That case was dismissed in 1988, but two other lawsuits asked the judge to set aside that ruling and charged fraud and malpractice.
Those cases are still in legal limbo.
These lawsuits have repercussions in the art world, Godlove said. If these paintings are found to belong to the descendants of Robinson’s heirs, there will most likely be others. And if there are other Robinson paintings with questionable origins, other painters likely have the same history, Godlove said.
“There’s a lot at stake here, and it’s not just the stake of these descendants,” she said.
Hutchinson just wants to restore a family heirloom, recoup certain paintings and vindicate the detailed work of his father and especially his sister, who was 59 when she died.
“I did promise her when she died, because she worked so hard, I said, ‘I’m not an expert in this, but I’m determined to pursue this for you,”’ he said. “That’s all I can say about it.”