Painting relocation still a mystery
Lafayette's Washington portrait was found in the college bushes.
Snuggled in sparse shrubbery beside the red brick walls of a college dormitory is not where one would think to find the father of our nation.
Yet the story of one of the Lehigh Valley's great unsolved crimes of 2012 - the theft of a historic, centuries-old painting depicting a victorious George Washington at the Yorktown battlefield - begins 11 months ago at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., in the bushes near Fisher Hall West.
That's where the three-foot-tall oil-on-canvas work, George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, was found April 13, still in its plain gilded frame, less than a day after being reported stolen.
The painting had been taken from the second-floor council room of Kirby Hall of Civil Rights, several hundred yards away. Easton police say the college estimated its value at $1 million, but it's probably worth much more.
"The painting was indeed found outdoors, on campus, in plain sight," said Robert J. Massa, Lafayette's vice president of communications.
Massa declined to comment further, saying an investigation was ongoing, with Easton police assisting Lafayette's public safety department.
"It may have been a prank, we're still not sure," Easton Police Chief Carl Scalzo said.
According to Lafayette, the painting disappeared between 3 a.m. and 3 p.m. April 12. It was one of many on the second floor of Kirby, and part of a collection of American portraits assembled by Lafayette alumnus and patron Allan P. Kirby.
Before Kirby donated the painting in 1945, it had hung in the bedroom of the Marquis de Lafayette in his French château. Kirby obtained the work from Lafayette's great-great-grandson. It had originally been a gift from Washington to the marquis.
The theft went largely unreported, other than a message broadcast to students and staff, and a short article in the Lafayette, the college newspaper, that noted that unidentified students said the painting was "chilling" in the bushes.
The painting was not damaged but has remained in storage since its recovery. The college did not disclose the painting's current location.
The value of Easton's 2012 property crimes shot into the stratosphere as a result of the theft. The painting alone was worth more than everything stolen in the city of 25,000 people the year before.
The work's doppelgänger, George Washington at Princeton, which shows the first president in the same pose - legs jauntily crossed, hand resting on an artillery piece, American flags flying behind him while the Union Jack and other banners lie at his feet - sold at auction for $21.3 million in 2006, according to Christie's.