Stolen painting again hanging on prof’s wall

Meghan Gordon

An emotional void and a bit of wall space were filled Thursday in Prof. Carol Simpson Stern’s house after an oil painting missing for more than 23 years was returned to her.

The work by Chicago surrealist Gertrude Abercrombie was among the 36 paintings stolen from Stern’s Wilmette home in 1977.

When art collector Harlan Berk began cataloguing his collection for an upcoming book, an art history professor at Roosevelt University recognized the missing painting as one of those stolen from Stern, who is chairwoman of Northwestern’s performance studies department and a former dean of the Graduate School.

After a three-month verification process, Stern and her husband, J. Allyson Stern, picked up the painting Thursday at Berk’s rare-coin store.

Berk, who paid a private collector $4,500 for the piece in 1999, said he was glad to return the painting to its rightful owners.

“Good art grows on you and gets better,” Berk said. “It becomes part of the household, part of the family. You can walk by it after a while and not notice it. But when it’s stolen, it creates a void, and you get very angry, and all you can do is scream at the walls – you’re helpless.

“By giving this painting back to them, I’ve sort of filled part of that void. I was able to heal that for them.”

The painting’s discovery had other ties to Northwestern after it was stolen from Stern.

“It was an exhibit at NU that really fueled my interest in the whole field,” said Berk, whose visit to a Block Museum exhibit on Chicago modernism piqued his interest in Abercrombie’s work.

According to Berk, most of Abercrombie’s paintings relate to her life. The returned painting depicts Abercrombie’s husband standing on a balcony behind an empty chair. Berk said the empty chair symbolizes the artist’s divorce, and he speculated that a bluebird in the scene represents the artist.

The Sterns decided to purchase the painting when they saw it up for auction on WTTW-TV more than two decades ago. They paid $275 for the painting.

“We saw it and we loved it,” J. Allyson Stern said.

Carol Simpson Stern, who went to school with Abercrombie’s daughter, later became friends with the artist and had the painting signed. She said the work has increased in value because Abercrombie, who died in 1977, rarely painted men.

FBI agents told the couple that the case of their 35 other stolen paintings might be reopened.

Stern first learned of the work’s reappearance when Berk e-mailed her at NU.

“Ever since I first met him, I completely trusted him,” she said. “I didn’t want something to go wrong with this. I wanted to acknowledge his important role as a good samaritan.”

When the two first spoke, she described three of the four Abercrombie paintings over the phone.

But Stern said she could tell she was not describing the one Berk had.

“Then I suddenly had this illumination,” she said. “It’s the painting of the man and the chair.”

When the couple went to Berk’s shop in November to identify the painting, Stern said, she knew immediately that it was theirs.

Stern plans to mount the painting alongside a sketch by Abercrombie on her kitchen wall “so I can see it everyday, ” she said.