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WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Sleuthing in Storage – Solving a 75-year-old Mystery

Abandoned property continues to be a focus of attention behind the scenes at the Worcester Art Museum. We are actively pursuing courses of action to claim every square inch of space in storage for the museum’s collection, and research for heirs to abandoned art is part of that process. In many cases, mysteries have been solved by locating direct descendants of the owners of furniture, paintings, silver, sculptures and other decorative objects not owned by WAM. One recent success story was finding the “children” of a man from Southbridge who deposited paintings at the museum 75 years ago.

Last summer, four paintings were identified in storage as being abandoned property from the same owner. The search for the heirs to this property began with the name William P. “Curbey.” Very limited information had been entered into the museum’s database, however, typed blue index cards for each painting were found in the Registrar’s office card files. These cards were formerly used to track acquisitions and loans by object locations and by their donors or lenders-- long before a computerized database was in full operation. The cards for the four paintings listed the depositor as William P. “Curbey”—with no address or contact information. There was also a curious note that they were at the museum “for expertization.” The owner never returned to retrieve the paintings, and although some research had been done in previous decades to locate the heirs, imprecise information on the index cards may have set the stage for a 75-year old head-scratching mystery.

Using the paintings’ entry numbers 40.1384-.1387 as a clue, I scoured page after page of the Receiving Book for the year 1940 until the entry for June 3rd was spotted. It listed four paintings delivered to the museum’s front door by Mr. William P. “Curboy.” After many failed attempts at finding matches for the name Curbey, my “ah-ha” moment was confirmed when a 1930 U.S. Census record was located for an 11-year-old boy named William P. Curboy who lived with his grandfather and parents at the same address listed in the receiving book. This census information meant that in 1940, William would have been old enough to have delivered the paintings to the museum. Online obituaries also provided a list of immediate family members -- useful for confirming identities. But the most important bonus clue leading directly to the family was the discovery of Mr. Curboy’s name in a family tree on the Ancestry.com website. An email was sent immediately to the administrator of this tree and two months later, one of Mr. Curboy’s sons responded.

Preparations are now underway for the disposition of the paintings into the hands of the family’s representative—fittingly, the depositor’s son and namesake, William Curboy, Jr. The Curboy family has expressed astonishment, curiosity, and delight in reaction to this out-of-the blue news that their family holds legal claim to four 19th-century paintings, possibly brought to this country by great-grandparents who emigrated from Ireland. It is an amazing experience connecting families with remnants of their roots. The results of my research not only helps the museum in its quest for more space, but also, it has become the impetus for families to contact each other, reminisce, and come to a consensus as a family unit. So far, it has been all good vibes.

- Sandra Hachey, Contract Registrar

Browse the Worcester Art Museum Collection online

Images above:
Cow in Landscape, late 19th century, oil on canvas
Lake in the Mountains, late 19th century, oil on panel

Images below:
The Hayfield, late 19th century, oil on canvas
Still Life: Fishes and Kettle, late 19th century, oil on canvas

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