It is December 4, 2017. A graduate student student is searching through the Morris K. Udall finding aid (MS 325). She suspects blog readers may be interested in Udall’s involvement with the investigation regarding the Kennedy Assassination. However, another Washington mystery has caught her eye. In a box of correspondence is a folder labeled “The case of the Missing Painting,” and her interests are piqued. As she searches through the folder, she realizes she has stumbled upon an unsolved mystery, and seeks to re-open the case. A potential reader may have information that can help solve a case that went cold in July 1968.
The Beginning: Morris K. Udall is Decorating his Office
It is June of 1968 and Morris K. Udall is serving in the House of Representatives. His Washington office, like so many other offices, lacks a certain personal touch. Udall, who describes himself as an “amateur student of Indian painting,” decides that he can add his own personal touch to his office by hanging two paintings. He reaches out to an avid art collector (and friend) who agrees to loan Mo two paintings. Both paintings are taken to Rosequist Galleries in Tucson, where they are packaged/crated and prepared for shipment. The Gallery sends the paintings to Washington.
Correspondence confirming that two paintings were sent from Rosequist Galleries in Arizona to the Cannon House Office Building in Washington. (MS 325, Box 7, Folder 8)
The Case: A Painting Goes Missing!
“On or about June 28th a crate was delivered to my office in the Cannon House Office Building,” according to correspondence from July 17th from Mo.
Excerpt from correspondence from Udall to Marvin Snodgrass of Snodgrass & Downey Insurance. (MS 325, Box 7, Folder 8).
The following events unfold in a dramatic fashion. A crate is left outside of Mo’s office and an employee opens the crate. Inside, there are supposed to be two paintings. The first is “On the Santa Fe Trail” by Frank Tenney Johnson. This painting is removed and an employee begins to hang the painting in the office.
“On the Santa Fe Trail” by Frank Tenney Johnson.
A panic erupts when Mo enters the room and inquires about the second painting. The missing painting is titled “Quiet Pool” by E. I. Couse. Couse (full name Eanger Irving Couse) is known for his paintings of Native Americans, the New Mexico landscape, and the broader American Southwest. He set up shop in Taos, where his shop still remains and is preserved as a historic site. Despite having over 75 well-recognized works on Google, there are no images of “Quiet Pool,” because the painting is lost. According to Rosequist Galleries, both paintings were housed in the same crate, and Couse’s work should be in the crate. Yet, as correspondence reveals, the crate has already been taken away and destroyed. The employee that opened the crate to hang Johnson’s painting is near-certain there was not another painting.
Mystery: Was the Painting Stolen???
The crate the paining(s) were shipping in is now gone. Udall is missing a painting that has been loaned to him. Thus the question becomes… did someone steal the painting? According to at least one story run by a DC newspaper, Richard Olson (Udall’s secretary) believes that the second painting was unpacked and was potentially stolen while no one was looking.
(MS 325, Box 7, Folder 8)
The painting was worth an estimated $6,000 — so a potential thief may have taken the painting in the hopes that they could resell it on the market. Barry Kalb, writing for the Washington Star, described the painting as “an Indian sitting on a rock staring into a pool of water.” During this interview, Olson suggested that perhaps someone took the original crate as firewood–complicating the mystery further, because now the crate itself appears to have vanished. There is a missing painting and a missing crate with no evidence of where the Couse painting has gone.
(MS 325, Box 7, Folder 8)
First, Udall’s staff does an internal investigation. The original crate was either immediately destroyed -or- was taken off the property. It is never found. After interviewing staff, the Capitol police receive a report that the painting is missing. It is now suspected that, potentially, someone has stolen the painting. It could, as Olson suggests, be that someone accidentally took the wood crate home for firewood and realized later they had the painting. Perhaps they were afraid to bring it back. Maybe they did not know they had it, and burned it. These are all plausible but Udall, still convinced the painting may turn up, offers a $50 reward. After several media and press releases, the painting is never found.
Today: Can we Solve this Case?
After reviewing the brief correspondence and “evidence” that is contained in the Udall Collection, I have my own questions regarding this mystery.
First– could this painting have been mis-titled when it was originally shipped? There is a painting by Couse titled “Indian at Sacred Lake” that sound remarkably similar to the painting Kalb describes in his Washington Star article. I’ll insert a picture, and perhaps you’ll see the similarities as well . . .
“Indian at Sacred Lake” by E. Iriving Couse (1921). Oil on canvas. El Paso Museum of Art.
If there was a labeling mistake, then eventually the painting did resurface and is now housed at the El Paso Museum of Art. This is one potential ending to this decades old mystery, but one that creates more questions than answers: How did someone bungle the title originally? Did the seller actually steal the painting to make a profit? Did the El Paso Museum of Art ever note the origins of the painting? Thus, this would be an interesting and potentially dramatic ending, but would need further investigation. Also, the archivist in me would hope that the original owner and Rosequist Galleries would have known the correct title for the piece they sent Udall.
There are, of course, other options. Sadly, the painting could indeed have been inside the missing crate. Custodial staff could have easily picked it up as trash, discarded it, and now the painting is destroyed and decayed, never to resurface.
Or, perhaps the painting is still out there. An accidental mix-up could have led to someone taking the painting home (accidentally!) and maybe they never knew they had the “missing painting.” Perhaps they hung it on the wall or stored it in the attic. It could very well still be out there, waiting to one day reappear. Maybe you, reading this right now, are suddenly glancing over at a suspicious painting hanging in your grandmother’s parlor . . . could this be the missing painting I’m reading about?
We may never know what happened to “Quiet Lake,” but alas, that may not be the moral of the story. Instead, what I would encourage is for researchers to allow themselves to be distracted while working in archives. Had I not been curious about the title of this folder, I may never have stumbled upon a great mystery. So do not be afraid to follow in my footsteps and let distraction take you on a new journey!