Lost History: Hunting for WPA Paintings

Federal agents are hunting for historic paintings produced by Americans during the Works Progress Administration, the landmark Great Depression program to support destitute artists.

A review by the News4 I-Team found an overwhelming number of the 200,000 paintings are considered missing, their whereabouts actively being sought by agents of the U.S. General Services Administration Inspector General and the General Services Administration’s division of fine arts.

Beginning in 1935, the Works Progress Administration, which employed thousands of artists and paid some $42 a week for their work, produced artwork for public buildings. The paintings were distributed nationwide and were catalogued in hand-kept records. All but 20,000 of those pieces have since been lost, stolen or misplaced, according to the I-Team review. Efforts to recovery have been slowed by the lack of modern records and the loss of identifiable plaques and markers on the paintings themselves.

“I'm not sure things were catalogued or organized in those days,” Acting GSA Inspector General Robert Erickson. “People didn't put the value on them that they do today.”

Federal agents are actively searching for WPA pieces, including a regular review of eBay and other websites on which items are traded or sold.

“If you go on eBay right now and search 'WPA,' you're going to get about 2,700 hits,” GSA Inspector General special agent Eric Radwick said.

Knowingly selling or buying WPA is a federal crime because the paintings are forever considered property of the U.S. government.

Investigators said thefts have occurred, including in recent years. “December in Venice,” a famed WPA piece by artist Charles Polowetski , was stolen from the walls of the Mills Mansion in upstate New York in 2008. Agents said a tourist who’d just signed the mansion’s guest book and placed $2 in a donation box is suspected of stealing the painting. It has not been recovered.

Federal agents said all WPA artwork are technically “priceless” because they cannot be sold or purchased. But a recent appraisal found “14th Street at 6th Avenue,” a landmark WPA painting by John Sloan portraying a New York City intersection amid the Depression, was worth an estimated $750,000.

Brian Miller, a former Inspector General for the General Services Administration, helped launch the agency’s efforts to recover the pieces.

“Unfortunately, many of these pieces have been missing for decades,” Miller said. “And (until now) people didn’t even know we were looking for them.”

A man in Berryville, Virginia, recently discovered a piece of WPA in his living room and turned it in to federal investigators, according to Miller. The piece, “Iris Garden,” had been hanging in a Berryville elementary school and was given to the man by a staffer when the school underwent renovation. The “Iris Garden” was lent to a museum for display soon after.

Contact Us