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A Margaret Keane ‘Big Eyes’ painting stolen in 1972 has been returned to the family that owned it

David Williams and Justin Lear, CNN

A stolen painting by famed American artist Margaret Keane is back home with its original owners — including one of the women depicted in the portrait — almost 50 years after someone swiped it from a Honolulu dentist’s office.

The owners had been searching for the painting, known as “Eyes Upon You” since it was taken in 1972, according to Heritage Auctions, which returned the artwork at a news conference on Wednesday.

The Dallas-based auction house said it sold the painting for $35,000 at a sale in December on consignment for a family that bought it from a New Jersey art gallery in the 1980s.

It was not listed in the FBI’s National Stolen Art File and the family didn’t know it was stolen until they were contacted by Robert Wittman, an art theft investigator hired by the original owners, Heritage said in a news release.

Wittman is a former FBI special agent and founded the agency’s art crime team.

“Heritage immediately got the painting back from the buyer, they notified the consigner of the situation and worked with us 100%, so the family is thrilled,” Wittman said.

‘Big Eyes’

Keane became a pop culture icon in the 1960s and 1970s and was known for her surrealist paintings of people and animals with large, expressive eyes.

She was the subject of the 2014 Tim Burton film “Big Eyes” about her legal battle with her husband over credit for her work. Keane, 93, now has a gallery in San Francisco.

She was living in Hawaii when she painted “Eyes Upon You” and the portrait includes seven Hawaiian children of different races and ethnicities — including the dentist’s daughter, who was 7 years old at the time.

Keane painted her based on a photo the girl’s father provided.

Wittman said the dentist hung the painting in his reception area because he wanted all children to feel comfortable while they waited for their checkups.

The family wants to remain anonymous, but said in a statement that they are glad to have the painting back.

“The painting holds a special meaning to our family because our father was fortunate enough to work with the artist and envisioned the concept and images on this unique piece of art. We are grateful that our painting will be returning home to our family,” the statement said.

Aviva Lehmann, Heritage’s vice president and director of American art, called the painting a “tour de force” and said it was rare to see a Keane painting with so many people in it.

“It’s the finest Margaret Keane I’ve ever handled and probably the finest Margaret Keane I’ve ever seen based on size, subject and quality,” she said.

She said the painting’s movie-plot history made it even more interesting.

Lunchtime heist

No one was ever arrested or charged with stealing the painting, which was taken while the dentist office was closed for lunch, Wittman said.

He said the thief took the canvas, which measures 39×49 inches, and apparently carried it down the stairs to avoid being seen by a receptionist near the elevator.

Wittman doesn’t know how the painting got from Hawaii to New Jersey, but said stolen art often changes hands several times. He also said it’s common for stolen art to be discovered when someone tries to sell it.
“That’s why art theft is such a ridiculous crime because at some point, it’s going to come back to the market,” he said. “Even the ‘Mona Lisa’ was stolen, in 1911, and that was recovered within two years.”

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