By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010; A15
Government watchdogs spend most of their time tracking allegations of waste, fraud and abuse, but some investigators pursue long-lost or stolen government art.
A project quietly launched nine years ago by the agency responsible for most federal property is encouraging art dealers, auctioneers, museums and yard- sale customers to look out for paintings, drawings and sculptures produced by artists paid by the New Deal's Works Progress Administration.
During the Depression, the government paid artists as much as $42 a week, resulting in more than 20,000 images of sandy beaches, snowy farmland and portraits of everyday people. Many submissions are still displayed at schools, libraries, hospitals and post offices. The art usually carries a WPA marker, and National Archives records can account for most of the pieces.
Responsibility for the art -- valued from $3 to $250,000 for a painting by John French Sloan -- was transferred to the General Services Administration when the WPA was dissolved after World War II. GSA's Fine Arts Program manages more than 19,000 paintings, murals and statues at federal buildings nationwide, because federal law requires government-owned buildings to display artwork.
But the office is also on the lookout for WPA art that was misplaced, stolen or given away when the program ended. GSA's inspector general got involved in 2001 when some of the art started showing up on eBay and at auction houses.
"We're not the art police," said Dave Farley, a spokesman for GSA's office of inspector general.
The office will not pursue a piece of art unless it has proof of government ownership and the art inquiries take a back seat to the dozens of other cases related to traditional watchdog matters, he said.
The project has recovered at least 55 pieces, according to Special Agent Eric Radwick, who handles most of the art-related cases. There was the St. Louis woman who bought a $7 painting of the Kansas City skyline, put it on eBay for $125 and then reluctantly surrendered it to Radwick for nothing. It now hangs at Union Station in Kansas City.
An auction house in Iowa was on the verge of auctioning dozens of drawings, including a sketch of Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, before someone noticed the WPA markings and phoned the GSA. The sketches are now at a local museum.
"It's kind of like a neighborhood watch," Radwick said. "There are some people in the art community actively participating who will call us whenever they see anything."
But other art lovers think GSA is using taxpayer money to track down worthless pieces.
"There aren't million-dollar paintings owned by the GSA," said John Curuby, president of the Boston Art Club. "They're very second-tier and third-tier works that have percolated down into the market."
Curuby's group bought a $35,000 painting on eBay about two years ago from a Chicago man who touted the painting's WPA seal. Since learning about the purchase, Radwick has been working with the group to confirm government ownership and to find the painting a public home.
The government should abandon the project, Curuby said, since much of the WPA artwork was sold as scrap canvass or by private shops for pennies when the project ended.
"Yes, it was taxpayer-funded, but if you or I relinquished control of something for more than 20 years, we'd have no claim to it," Curuby said.
Adam Tamsky, an art gallery owner in Providence, R.I., tried selling an "unimportant, unimpressive" watercolor on eBay for $225. GSA found it because it had a WPA marker on the front. The painting is now at a Connecticut museum.
"There was a lot of time spent on recovering this pathetic little object," Tamsky said. "Maybe there are historically significant paintings that they should go to the mat for, but in this particular case, it just seemed like a major waste of everybody's time."
But the GSA watchdogs, who had little knowledge of art before the project began, say they understand its historical importance, regardless of street value.
"It portrays a period of history that people weren't documenting in photographs in the way they're documented in these paintings," said Assistant Inspector General Gregory Rowe. "It's a part of our heritage, and I feel good about returning it to the public domain."