PATERSON, N.J. — A 170-year-old painting of the Great Falls, a prominent waterfall in the city, has been reported stolen from an office at the Paterson Museum.
The unsigned, untitled oil-on-wood painting that has been appraised at $9,000 was loaned to the museum by a private collector in September and was expected to be displayed later this week during the celebration of a 225-year city milestone, museum director Giacomo DeStefano said.
Police said there were no signs of a break-in at the museum on lower Market Street in the Great Falls historic district.
Mayor Joey Torres said he was shocked to learn that the museum building containing “priceless” artifacts from Paterson’s history had no security cameras, and said his staff would “proceed immediately” to get the equipment.
“This is disheartening,” Torres said.
Meanwhile, the owner of the painting, James Eifler, speculated that someone who is familiar with the museum’s operation took the artwork.
“In my opinion, it had to be someone who knows there’s no cameras in the museum,” he said. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t take that chance.”
DeStefano said the city considered installing cameras at the museum several years ago but dropped the idea because of budget constraints. He said estimates for a basic camera system were as much as $14,000.
“We’re reviewing our entire security process,” DeStefano said.
Paterson police are checking video footage from other security cameras in the area as part of the investigation, said Deputy Police Chief Heriberto Rodriguez, who is leading the probe into the missing painting.
DeStefano said he had been keeping the painting in his first-floor office at the museum and realized it was missing Monday. He said the painting could have been taken sometime in the last several days.
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“I don’t see how you can get a painting out of here without anyone noticing,” DeStefano said.
The Great Falls painting was one of two loaned to the museum by Eifler, who lives in Woodland Park. The other painting is by 19th century landscape artist Julian Walbridge Rix and is more valuable than the unsigned work, DiStefano said.
Eifler, a retired commercial plumber from Woodland Park, said he collects Paterson-related items from the 19th century, including fire department memorabilia as well as about 650 commercial bottles and about 260 jugs.
Earlier this year, Eifler said he was browsing through a catalog for an upcoming “Americana” auction in Pennsylvania when he spotted the old painting of the Great Falls. Eifler said the auction group was offering the painting as a generic 19th century landscape.
“I recognized it right away,” said the Great Falls enthusiast.
DeStefano said the painting is from the 1840s, a date partially determined because of the wooden bridge shown across the falls.
After buying the painting at the auction for a price he declined to disclose, Eifler offered to loan it to the Paterson Museum. He said he learned it was missing on Monday when his phone rang while he was driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike in South Jersey.
“I had to pull over I was so sick to my stomach,” he said. “A million things were racing through my mind.”
Eifler said he was surprised to learn that the museum doesn’t have surveillance cameras, and had simply assumed a place with so many valuable items would have them.
The painting is about 2-feet square. “It’s not something you can hide under a jacket and just walk out,” he said.
DeStefano said Eifler’s painting and the one made by Rix were kept together in his office; the thief happened to take the one appraised for less. Eifler declined to reveal the value of the Rix piece. DeStefano speculated that the thief may have picked the unsigned painting because it is smaller than the Rix work.
The two paintings were going to be displayed this week as part of an exhibit honoring the 225th anniversary of the Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers, the group of industrialists led by Alexander Hamilton who helped give birth to Paterson by harnessing the power of the Great Falls for their manufacturing mills.
Eifler has agreed to allow the Rix painting to remain at the museum for the upcoming exhibit.
“Jack said, ‘If you want to take it back, I’ll understand,’ but I told him to keep it and make sure it’s safe,” Eifler said.