The mystery of a missing painting and two Santa Clara non-profits located a mile apart came to an end on April 8 when the long-lost painting of Captain Christian Lass was found in an unlikely location.
According to Lass’ great granddaughter, Betty Stevens, the painting was removed from the Harris Lass House for restoration by the late Austen Warburton on the day the City of Santa Clara took possession of the property at 1889 Market Street in 1987. At the time of Warburton’s death in 1995, the painting had not yet been returned.
Upon his death, and as planned, Warburton’s art collection was donated to the Triton Museum of Art, which also maintains and preserves artwork owned by the City. Triton Museum of Art Chief Curator Preston Metcalf said the painting of Lass was likely shipped to the Triton with Warburton’s other pieces, and even though the painting had a tag denoting it was property of the City through an internal inventory number placed on it by the Harris Lass House, it also had a tag from the conservator that read “Triton Museum of Art.” Metcalf believes the painting went through the registrar process at the museum, but because the Triton never had record of the donation, and the City did not have record of the painting, he surmised the museum’s staff stored it, along with other items sent from the Warburton estate, offsite for safe keeping and to research at a later date.
It wasn’t until 2015, when the current Harris Lass board of directors took inventory of the home’s catalogued items that they realized the portrait of Lass was missing. Immediately, the board began their search to find it.
“Bob Byrd, president of the Historic Preservation Society of Santa Clara, began the search by contacting the Triton Museum of Art,” said Joan Cabral, who chaired the board’s effort to track down the painting. “The Triton had no record of processing the painting.” Cabral and other volunteers then began contacting those with knowledge of the Harris Lass House’s history, including Santa Clara City Historian Lorie Garcia, retired Santa Clara City Local History Librarian Mary Hanel, President of the Headen-Inmen House Jim Narveson, the de Young Museum, Santa Clara University Archivist Sheila Conway and the Hambrooks Auction Center, which handled the sale of Warburton’s estate. Each effort turned up fruitless.
By chance, the painting turned up while Metcalf was visiting an offsite storage unit he said does not house any art.
“I was over in this other storage room on a completely unrelated thing and I turn over and I see a painting and I think, ‘why is a painting in here? We should have all the paintings,” said Metcalf. “And, I look at it and I recognize it from their website as the missing painting.” He immediately took the portrait back to the museum and contacted the Harris Lass House to tell them of the find.
While there are still a few gaps in the in the painting’s history that have yet to be filled, both museums are happy the nearly 30-year-old mystery has been solved.
“I like that we don’t know [all of the details],” said Cabral. “It lends the painting character. The painting holds the secret, and Captain Christian Lass is not talking. What is wonderful is that so many came together to find this priceless piece of Santa Clara History.”
Likewise, Triton Museum Executive Director Jill Meyers is pleased the painting has been returned. “I’m thrilled that Captain Lass has come back home and we’re so happy for the Harris Lass House that this mystery has been solved,” she said.
Now safely back in the hands of the Harris Lass House, Cabral said the painting will be featured at the house on Sunday, June 11 when it will host a free open house from 1 to 4 p.m.