Do you collect anything? Personally, I’m always on the hunt for pristine vinyl records while my spouse keeps an eye out for unusual knickknacks with an historic flair. The hunt for these objects is a lot of fun and once our treasurers are brought home we are able to enjoy them whenever we want.
At Oakhurst, George, Frances, and Elisabeth Ball surrounded themselves with collections that brought them joy. Recently, while digging through the Heritage Collection I stumbled upon an interesting letter that caught my eye. Sent in 1947 from The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the letter begins “Dear Miss Ball: I very much regret to inform you that your painting by Albert P. Ryder, ‘Flora’ or ‘The Little Maid of Arcady,’ has been stolen from our current Ryder exhibition.” Stolen art?! Snatched from a museum?! As you can imagine, I was hooked and needed to find out more.
In 1947, Elisabeth Ball was notified that her painting was stolen from The Whitney Museum of American Art, Minnetrista Heritage Collection
The topic of artwork did not surprise me. Frances and Elisabeth were collectors of fine art. Paintings, prints, sculpture … you name it, they collected it. In 1937 Frances purchased a small painting by Arthur P. Ryder from a fine art dealer in New York City. Known by a couple of titles, the piece was sometimes referred to as “Flora” and at other times, “The Little Maid of Arcady” or “The Little Maid of Acadie.”
Now, fast forward a decade to 1947. The Ball family has “The Little Maid of Arcady” hanging in their home. They see the piece regularly as they go about their daily routines. Then a letter arrives in the mail addressed to Frances from Juliana Force, the Director of The Whitney Museum. Mrs. Force lets Frances know that her museum is organizing an exhibition of the work of Albert P. Ryder. She wonders if the family might be willing to loan “A Little Maid of Arcady” for the exhibit.
This receipt from 1937 shows that Frances Ball paid $950 for “Flora,” also known as the “Little Maid of Arcady,” Minnetrista Heritage Collection
After a bit of conversation via postal mail, Elisabeth, who was given the painting by her mother, decides to loan the piece for the exhibit. Wanting to share their collections with others, the Ball’s frequently loaned artwork and rare books for exhibitions around the country. On October 13th, the painting arrived at the museum in time to be hung for the exhibit opening on October 18th. Just nine days later The Whitney wrote to inform Elisabeth of the theft.
Despite a guard circulating the galleries, the thief managed to snatch the small painting, leaving no trace at all. Following the advice of the police, no information about the burglary was released to the press. They worried that doing so might discourage the thief from trying to sell the piece – which would make it easier to recover.
The Ball family held their breath, but the police never came up with any leads. Their painting had simply vanished and an empty spot was left on their wall. After many years of waiting, the painting finally resurfaced in the 1960s, but Elisabeth did not pursue reclaiming it. In 2016, the piece was donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“Little Maid of Acadie” (“Little Maid of Arcady”) , Oil on panel, Albert P. Ryder, 1886, Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art