“Some people said I would never see it again," said Nellie Hill of Berkeley, seen here with her recovered oil painting, which had been stolen in January. Photo: Stolen 911
“Some people said I would never see it again,” said Nellie Hill, with her recovered oil painting, which was stolen in January. Photo: Stolen 911

A Berkeley woman has recovered a treasured family painting, stolen from her home in January, with the help of a website designed to get stolen goods back into the hands of their rightful owners.

North Berkeley resident Nellie Hill got a phone call last week from a Marin County man who had come into possession of the stolen oil painting, and wanted to return it.

Hill said the man had searched for the painter’s name online, and found a listing she had created on the website Stolen 911. Her post described the theft of the artwork and asked for help getting it back. The man called Hill after seeing the post, and told her he wanted to return the painting.

Hill said she had not expected the call, particularly because so much time had passed since the package containing the painting had been stolen from her home less than an hour after it had been delivered in late January.

She said she had shipped the painting to herself from Illinois, where she had been visiting her mother, whose health had been declining. The oil painting, by artist Geo Duchesne, had hung in the living room of her childhood home since 1957, when her parents had purchased it, possibly in France. She was 15 at the time.

“I always loved that painting, and my mother gave it to me,” Hill said. “I said, of all the things in the house, I want this.”

The painting shows an autumn scene of a wet road leading into a forest.

“Some of the leaves have come off the trees. The branches are heavy,” Hill said. “The road leads you into that quiet, nature place. It was always something I could look at and feel a sense of peace. It’s the beauty of the painting, and then what it means. It was a piece of the house, and my mother and father. I always wanted to have it.” 

Hill had used UPS to ship the painting to herself, then flew home. The day it was to be delivered, she had to run out for an appointment. By the time she got home, the package had reportedly been left (out of view), but it was nowhere to be found.

She called the UPS driver on his cellphone — he’s been her deliveryman for more than a decade — and he came back to the house to show her where he had left it. But it was gone.

“He was just as upset as I was, which shows how little this happens on his route. We don’t have this in this neighborhood,” she said, of UPS package theft. Hill felt so bad about the loss that she kept the theft a secret from her family, electing not to tell her sisters or mother about what had happened. “It was heartbreaking.”

Hill: “I got used to the fact the painting was stolen”

Hill filed a report with the Berkeley Police Department, and began calling around to auction houses and the Oakland Museum of California, which has an annual white elephant sale where a friend thought the painting might turn up. She contacted Berkeleyside, and we posted about the theft on our Facebook page. She tried posting on Craigslist, but found the interface confusing. The seven-day expiration process used by the site also made for a frustrating experience.

Hill wasn’t sure what else she could do. She ended up plugging the term “stolen art” into Google, and one of the first results was the Stolen 911 website. She looked it over and decided it was worth a shot to post information about her lost painting there. The website was created by an East Bay CHP detective named Marc Hinch in 2007, as a personal project, to allow victims of theft to post their lost property online and potentially help drum up leads for law enforcement investigators.

Hill’s request on Stolen 911 was for the return of the painting in exchange for a cash reward, “no questions asked.” Hinch helped Hill add photographs to her listing, and talked her through the process for posting online.

Hill also printed out the Stolen 911 notice and hung it on her neighbor’s fence post, in case the thieves returned and had a change of heart. Friends gave her conflicting advice as she tried to come to terms with the loss.

“Some said, ‘Maybe you’ll get it back.’ Others said, ‘You’ll never get it back,’” she said. “I thought about it all through the month of February. But, once February went, and I was more occupied with my mother, I got used to the fact the painting was stolen. It was difficult. And I didn’t really want to think about it.”

In May, her mother died, and Hill’s attention became even more focused on family matters.

But then, last Thursday, Hill received a phone call, which she initially did not plan to pick up, because it looked to her like a robocall. When she answered, a man’s voice asked if he had reached “Ellen,” her given name. She told him he had.

“Then he said, ‘Are you an art dealer?’” She told him she was not. “We have your painting,” he told her.

“It was if I’d been hit over the head,” she said. He told her he was in Berkeley with his brother, and that he wanted to meet up to return the painting to her. He had Googled the artist’s name, and found her Stolen 911 listing. “He never mentioned the word ‘reward.’ He said, ‘I just want to get it back, it’s a beautiful painting and it should go back to its rightful owner. I just want to do the right thing.’”

She arranged to meet up with the man at what she felt would be a safe location, but said she wasn’t really worried for her safety. The man sounded “personable enough,” and they spent about 40 minutes talking on the phone before setting up the appointment.

“I just felt it would be OK,” she said. “He sounded very real.”

She said the man’s story about how he’d come to have her painting was vague, and that he offered conflicting accounts of the details. First the man said he had been given the painting, and he later described it differently, and spoke of problems with a “lawyer friend” who had some shady dealings. The man and his brother seemed nervous, as if they didn’t want to be seen, Hill said.

During the meeting, the man opened the van door, and pulled out the painting, which he had wrapped in a mover’s quilt. Hill said he seemed to use a bit of “stage drama as he unwrapped it.” The man never mentioned the reward, but Hill said she had brought it anyway.

“I pressed it into his hands. He never looked at it,” she said. “But I haven’t gotten any calls saying it wasn’t enough.”

Stolen oil painting: Recovered! Image: Stolen 911
Stolen oil painting: Recovered! Image: Stolen 911

She said she plans to have the painting restored but, for now, it’s sitting propped up on her couch.

“I’m not eager to do that,” she said. “I’m going to keep it with me for awhile. I just like having it here.”

Hill said she’s sure her mother would be happy, now, to know how the saga had turned out. Two people had even suggested separately to her that, perhaps, her mother might have had something to do with the painting’s return.

“I’ve been giving this some thought,” one sister wrote Hill in an email, “and I decided mother did it.” Said a friend: “I think your mother pulled some strings.”

Added Hill: “And, who knows? It could be true!”

After getting home from the meeting with the Marin County man, one of the first things Hill did was to go online and mark the painting, on its Stolen 911 listing, as having been recovered. Hinch, who runs Stolen 911, saw the update, and got in touch with Hill on Friday last week to see if he could come over to see the painting and meet her in person.

Hill: “If it weren’t for Stolen 911, I wouldn’t have gotten this painting back”

Hinch said Monday that, though his site has helped recover many items over the years, all over the country, this was one of the first notable items recovered locally, which he said he found “pretty cool.” In addition, Hill’s oil painting was among the more unique items recovered through the site. Often, people post about dogs, laptops, iPods or musical instruments.

“This was the first big one so close to me, and the first real piece of art,” he said. (The site has nearly 20 pieces of art listed, and Hinch said he plans to write the other users to let them know of Hill’s success.)

Hinch said the goal of Stolen 911 is to create what he calls an “internet fingerprint” — so that a simple web search will lead to the true owner if something has been stolen. It’s free to post on the site, and Hinch said it can help give people who have been violated a way to feel like there’s something they can do to help recover their property. It doesn’t happen all the time, but Hinch often makes connections with posters who reach out to him for help or advice.

He oversees the project in his spare time, though he also sometimes uses it to help with his cases. Recently, he posted a warrant on the site, and was able to spread the word about the warrant on social media. After the suspect was located — via a tip related to the Stolen 911 post — he took down the warrant to maintain the integrity of the investigation.

Hinch noted that there are an increasing number of sites that seek to use the power of the internet and social media to help recover stolen items, such as Bike Index, a nationwide, centralized bike registry that makes it much easier to find out if a bicycle has been stolen, at least for those who are willing to make the effort to investigate prior to purchase.

Hinch said he wasn’t surprised it took seven months to get the painting back to Hill. He said it likely changed hands multiple times before it came into the possession of the Marin County man. It may initially have been stolen by someone who saw the large box and thought it might be a bicycle or a flatscreen television.

With any stolen item of significance, he said, “eventually someone legit wants it: a shop, an antique store. Someone’s going to research it, and hopefully someone’s going to do the right thing. Seven months is a good timeframe for it to have gone through its various channels.”

Hinch said people meeting with strangers to recover stolen property should always use caution: to meet in a public place, preferably in daylight. The parking lot of a police department is one place he recommends. Bring someone with you and “remember there are some people out there who take advantage of the whole reward thing,” he said.

Berkeley Police Officer Byron White, a department spokesman, said the oil painting case remains open, and investigators hope to determine who stole it. He said it can be “a real challenge for law enforcement” to track down stolen mail and other packages, a crime that is particularly common around the holidays.

White said local residents may want to consider having packages delivered to a secure location, such as a locking mailbox, P.O. box or private mailbox. The workplace can also be an effective option.

“To hear a story like this is really quite wonderful,” said White, of the painting recovery. “It really speaks to the power of social media in this information age. It’s great that people can take the photograph they have of their stolen item and put it online where other people can view it.”

Hill said, without Stolen 911, she does not believe she would ever have gotten the painting back.

“I’m sure I wouldn’t have,” she said. The website was easy to use, and also created the trail online used by the Marin County man to find her.

“It’s not vigilante,” she said, “but it is people taking things into their own hands to fill the gaps.”

UC Berkeley police lay ‘bait’ for bike thieves on campus (07.23.15)
Berkeley police hope bike registry will deter thieves (07.09.15)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...