The Cherry Hill Police Department has brought in the FBI to help solve an art mystery: what happened to a sculpture by artist Nathaniel Choate that was being used for a movie in South Jersey.
The unfinished marble bust of a Sudanese woman went missing in November from an apartment in Barclay Towers at 1200 Marlton Pike E., said police Chief William Monaghan. There were no signs of forced entry, he said.
The owner, who was not identified, loaned the sculpture to a family member who was using it as a movie prop, the chief said. The sculpture was stored at that location, he said.
Monaghan said investigators have not determined whether the sculpture was “misplaced, relocated or stolen.” Police have been searching for the sculpture since November and this week asked for the public’s help, he said.
“We’ve exhausted all of our investigative leads,” Monaghan said in an interview. “It’s important for us to recover it.”
Because the sculpture, created in the 1930s, has “cultural heritage significance, the FBI’s Art Crime Team in Philadelphia is assisting local police with the search. In 2017, the FBI helped recover an early Norman Rockwell painting that was stolen from a Cherry Hill home in 1976.
The FBI created a rapid deployment Art Crime Team in 2004, comprised of 16 special agents. The team has recovered more than 14,850 items valued at over $165 million.
A well-known sculptor and artist, Choate, who died in 1965, had close ties to the region. He lived in Phoenixville and exhibited his work at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in an annual exhibition of leading contemporary artists between 1935 and 1950, said President David Brigham.
Brigham said the Academy acquired a piece of Choate’s work, “Moroccan Goat.”
“He had a significant career,” Brigham said in an interview Thursday. “He is an artist with a national reputation.”
He also taught a sculpture class at the Academy’s summer school in Chester Springs in 1938 and showed his work in an exhibit sponsored by the Fairmount Park Association in the 1940s, Brigham said.
Choate’s work is also displayed prominently at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina, according to Brigham. He also exhibited in New York and was honored with a medal from the Architectural League of New York.
Born in 1899, Choate studied art at Harvard University and graduated in 1922, according to a 1968 book, Brookgreen Gardens Sculpture by Beatrice Gilman Proske. He expanded his art education by traveling to France, Italy, and Greece. His art was reshaped after traveling through Morocco and Sudan in 1932.
Brigham said it is difficult to put a price tag on the missing sculpture. Much of Choate’s work was destroyed when his ceramic business, Aldham Kilns in Aldham, Pa., was destroyed by a fire in 1947, and his artwork is not as well-known., he said. Still, the unfinished bust has “intrinsic value,” he said.
Monaghan had no additional information about the movie theme that the bust was used for.
The current owner was an acquaintance of Choate and was bequeathed the sculpture, Monaghan said. The owner is offering a unspecified reward for information that leads to the artwork or those involved in its disappearance.
“Hopefully we can get it back and it’s not tossed some place,” the chief said. “It could be a situation where someone has it and doesn’t know what it is.”
Anyone with information on the sculpture can call Cherry Hill police at 856-432-8826 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.