Mickey Dowd and the White Elephant

As told by Robert C. Vose, Jr. (1911-1998)

Watch Robert C. Vose Jr. tell the story

At 8:00 one morning in New York City, I rang the doorbell of Cecil “Mickey” Dowd, one of the more colorful members of the last generation of wholesale art dealers. Mickey came to the door in slippers and trousers with a towel over his shoulder and shaving soap on his face. Offering some profanity about the early hour, he pointed me to the coffeepot on a hot plate and continued shaving. As I gazed at the stacks of paintings in his small apartment, I noticed one huge work protruding some two feet above the others. When I commented that it looked like a [Thomas] Gainsborough, Mickey replied that it was, but what could one do with a “damned white elephant like that.” It was obviously a magnificent picture so I had him ship it to my father’s gallery. It was so big that it had to be tied on top of the elevator. Riding up with it was an unusual experience!

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, c. 1930.
Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie
Jones Collection

Research showed that the artist had at one point offered his nephew, Gainsborough du Pont, a choice of anything in the studio, and this was the nephew’s selection. Later, the painting was in Canada for a number of generations, its location unknown to art historians. Dr. George Edghill of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, recognized its quality and quickly arranged purchase of the lost masterpiece, at what we believed to be a modest price. When I took my father, then in his eighties and in a wheel chair, to view the painting in the museum’s newest acquisition room, we noticed the museum president, with his back to us, showing the painting to a friend. We retreated hastily when we heard him say, “We just stole this one.”

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