The two large 19th century oil paintings donated to the Supreme Court in 1977 were expected to be fitting additions to the court's collection.
The donor said that one of the paintings was of John Marshall, the chief justice of the United States from 1801 to 1835, and the other of his wife, Polly.
"In historical terms they are to be considered priceless," wrote Victor B. Lonson of the Smithsonian Institution, one of two appraisers authenticating the paintings.
But everything has its price and Lonson said the paintings and their carved wood and gold-leaf frames were worth $107,000. The donor, a wealthy Texas lawyer, would also reap a nice tax deduction of at least $50,000.
The Supreme Court Historical Society, which oversees such donations, was satisfied.Chief Justice Warren E. Burger was "much impressed and delighted" with the donation, according to William H. Press, the society's executive director.
Burger pays close attention to acquisitions made by the society for the court. He is the society's honorary chairman and had seen photographs of the Marshall paintings at a friend's house.
On Jan. 5, 1977, the paintings arrived at the court, were unpacked and admitted - a formal term for acceptance, according to a letter Press sent to the donor, Tom Lorance of Houston.
Two days later, Jan. 7, Burger was walking around the court. He told the story in a letter to Press that day:
"I have just looked today for the first time at the two portraits sent to us from Texas purporting to be John Marshall and his wife Polly Ambler Marshall.
"Today on one of my "inspection strolls' it struck me at once that the lady is not Mrs. Marshall. In fact there is a brass plate showing her name as "Lee." Mrs. Marshall's maiden name was Polly Ambler, and the 50 year old lady of the portrait bears little resemblance to any portrait of Polly."
Marvin Dadnik, director of the National Portrait Gallery, was called at once.
Burger was correct. It was not Polly. Nor was the other painting John Marshall. In addition, the purported painters were not - as claimed in formal appraisals - Ezra Ames of the colonial school of American art and John Vanderlyn, a student of the French masters. Nor did the two paintings ever belong to "Chief Justice Thad. Wood," as one appraisal had maintained. It turned out there never was a Chief Justice Wood.
The purported appraisal by Smithsonian appraiser Lonson was disclaimed by the institution. Officials said they had never of Lonson. His association with the institution apparently was as a subscriber to its magazine.
The Supreme Court Historical Society was the victim of a hoax. A painting expert characterized the alleged "Marshall" paintings as cheap "shoe polish" imitations.
The "Marshalls" were quickly repacked and six months later sent back to Texas. The historical society has, until now, successfully kept the embarrassment from becoming public.
But the origin of the hoax is still a mystery. The first appraiser, Lonson, has died.
The second appraisal was done by Joseph William Albert Richardson III, PhD antiquarian from Houston.
He could not be reached for comment last week. It was Richardson who sold the paintings to Lorance in 1975.
Though Lorance paid only $5,000 for each portrait, he said last week that at first he was sure the paintings were authentic portraits of the Marshalls.
"Good God, I bought the paintings in good faith, and my whole intention was to hang them in the Supreme Court," he said.
"I told my law partners, I have these paintings of the Marshalls. Should we hang them in the reception room, or in the Supreme Court?" They said the Supreme Court."
After learning that the paintings were not of Chief Justice Marshall and his wife, Lorance complained bitterly in a May 17, 1977, letter to Richardson and asked that the $10,000 he paid for the paintings be returned.
Lorance said he has never been able to find Richardson.
Meanwhile, at the historical society, officials have tightened procedures for authenticating donations.
In Houston, Lorance is still unhappy. He has other problems. As he said in his letter complaining to Richardson:
"There is also the matter of the "Whistler," the painting of "Aunt Cora." I have had it examined and, of course, it is not by Whistler."
But that is another story for another day. CAPTION: Picture 1, Donated painting misidentified as Polly Marshall.; Picture 2, The alleged portrait of Chief Justice Marshall.; Picture 3, JOHN MARSHALL; Picture 4, POLLY AMBLER MARSHALL These portraits of the chief justice and his wife are recognized as genuine.