Estate Sale Yields Conclusion to Decades-Long Mystery

Visual Arts


A Sarasota mystery has come to some semblance of a conclusion this past weekend, as a painting stolen from the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in 1991 has finally been found and returned to the Fine Arts Society of Sarasota. The painting was discovered at a local estate sale, and unveiled at the Fine Arts Society’s 50th anniversary celebration on Sunday.

Entitled Palette, the colorful and circus-themed painting was the work of Jon Corbino, a celebrated American painter who hit his zenith in the mid-20th century, when Life magazine named him the “modern-day Rubens” and his work appeared on the covers of art magazines across the country. Several of Corbino’s paintings found their way into prestigious collections, including at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Whitney Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Palette—distinctive and non-traditional in being rendered directly on Corbino’s palette—was painted in the early 1960s for a New York gallery owner named Eva Lee. It was later gifted to the Fine Arts Society in 1972, and hung in the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall until its disappearance in November of 1991. The theft garnered press, but no resolution.

According to the old Swedish proverb, “What is hidden in snow, comes forth in the thaw.” And while Sarasota may not have many snows, it does have plenty of estate sales. And when Eric Bowyer made his usual rounds one Saturday, hunting for hidden treasure, he came across one painting that stood out from the rest of the usual heirlooms and kickshaws—a circus scene painted right on a painter’s palette. The seller knew little about it, other than that it had belonged to her late sister. Bowyer bought it for $25, and began to do his research.

A signature on the painting led Bowyer to Lee Corbino, Jon Corbino’s daughter and the owner of Lee Corbino Galleries. She confirmed that the piece was indeed her father’s work, and then informed Bowyer of its theft nearly two decades prior. For Bowyer, the answer was simple—he would return the painting to the Fine Arts Society, where it belonged all these years and “where it can be appreciated as it should be."

“Stolen art doesn’t have value,” says Bowyer, “because it’s been taken away from the public.”

And though not back on display yet, the Fine Arts Society has announced plans to rehang Palette prominently with the rest of the displayed collection at the Van Wezel.

Pictured: "Palette" by Jon Corbino, in a new frame and unveiled by the Fine Arts Society of Sarasota County on March 3. Photo courtesy of Eric Bowyer.

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