Relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis claim a Long Island art dealer won’t return a portrait of the former first lady they say was stolen from the notorious “Grey Gardens” mansion decades ago — and they filed a lawsuit in federal court last week to get it back.
According to the complaint filed Thursday in the Eastern District of New York, the 1950 painting by artist Irwin Hoffman was stolen during the 1960s or 1970s from Grey Gardens, the sprawling 14-room East Hampton home featured in the 1975 riches-to-rags documentary that showed Onassis’ eccentric aunt and cousin — both named Edith Beale — living in squalor and neglect.
Defendant Terry Wallace, the owner of Wallace Gallery in East Hampton, said in an interview Sunday that he purchased the portrait 30 years ago from a reputable art dealer and that its provenance is “impeccable.” Wallace has refused to identify the dealer who sold it to him, saying that information is confidential.
Wallace said he has checked with local police departments and was unable to find any reports that suggest the painting of Onassis was stolen.
“If the painting was stolen, I would gladly return it,” Wallace said. “I would not risk my reputation and business for one painting.”
New York law requires dealers involved in disputes over paintings and other pieces of art to prove they acquired a piece through legal means, said Megan Noh, an attorney representing plaintiff Bouvier Beale Jr., the nephew of “Little Edie” Beale and the executor of her estate.
“What is he hiding, and why?” Noh asked about Wallace. “New York law strictly prohibits Mr. Wallace from getting title from a thief and puts the burden on him to show that he has good title.”
The painting, according to the lawsuit, was commissioned by Onassis’ father, John “Black Jack” Vernou Bouvier III, when she was 19 years old, three years before she married John F. Kennedy in 1953. The piece is a close-up of a teenage Onassis, years before she became a fashion icon, wearing a high-collar blouse under a blue jumper, her dark hair framing her face. Black Jack gave the painting to his sister, “Big Edie,” before his death.
“Big Edie” Beale kept the painting at Grey Gardens, which was the subject of the acclaimed documentary as well as a later musical and HBO film. The lawsuit said the home was burglarized during the 1960s and 1980s, but the Beales did not report the crime because of a long-running feud with local governments about deteriorating conditions at the garbage-filled estate.
The painting, according to the lawsuit, was featured in a 1998 article in Hamptons Magazine. The article said the painting had disappeared from Grey Gardens and that the Wallace Gallery had purchased the painting from a “John Doe” dealer “recently.” The dealer had obtained the portrait in the mid-1970s, the article said.
Bouvier Beale’s wife, Eva, saw the painting during a 2004 visit to the Wallace Gallery. She asked Wallace about the provenance of the piece, according to the lawsuit. He said the dealer was dead but refused to provide any other information.
Bouvier Beale and his wife did not realize the painting was stolen until 2016, when they were archiving Little Edie’s records and found a copy of the Hamptons Magazine article, according to the lawsuit.
Wallace has refused to say how he obtained the painting, the lawsuit said, but he told Newsday it was not through nefarious channels.
“I have worked with the local police and the FBI to solve cases,” he said. “I would not threaten my reputation for one painting.”