Sometimes, in life, there are happy endings.
But often, those happy endings do not come without years of hard work and passion.
For Baiting Hollow artist Max Moran, a plein air impressionist painter, who has been on a years-long odyssey after hundreds of paintings and sketches were stolen from his Mattituck studio in 2004 and 2006, the road to recovering his artwork has been long.
Losing his artwork was a crippling blow; many of Moran's sketches were portraits of his children and are priceless in their personal value and meaning.
But, after five years of searching, working with Southold Town Police and the FBI, Moran has begun to recover some of his artwork — and is hosting an exhibit of several recently recovered paintings, along with new landscapes, at the "Hung Out to Dry" exhibition at the Jedediah Hawkins Inn - Barn Gallery beginning Saturday and running through Sept. 16.
An opening reception will be held on Saturday from 5 to 8 p.m. Paintings will be on display Fridays from 5 to 8 pm. and Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 7 p.m.
After the 2007 art heist, Moran's real-life quest to recover his work covered more than four states and multiple continents and is as complex and involved as the most gripping work of fiction.
For years, Moran was plunged into dark uncertainty, spending thousands of dollars and searching for clues that would lead him to the stolen sketches and paintings that encompassed decades of his life's work.
It was only after hiring Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI's art crime team, that Moran saw a glimmer of hope as several canvases were recovered from private collections in his home state of Ohio.
Scores of pieces remain missing, however, including early figurative paintings, archives, and American iconic works. The exhibit, Moran says, is, in part, a fundraiser, to help in continuing efforts to bring more of his artwork home.
Moran's journey has been fraught with frustration, anguish, and a burning commitment to recover his canvases. Along the way, he has learned life lessons, not all of them uplifting. "You find out justice is really about how much you can afford," he said.
His artwork, Moran said, has been found on the secondary market in countries including Brazil and for sale on the Internet; many who purchased the pieces acquired the work "without asking a lot of questions" and without asking to authenticate the provenance, or the history of ownership, of a painting. Making matters more complicated, Moran said, artists do not often photograph unfinished work, making it even harder to track down.
"Nothing was happening," he said. "We could hear the clock ticking in the background."
The loss of 25 to 30 years of work, including priceless archives -- which are necessary to prove ownership in the search for missing pieces -- has been devastating, Moran said. The thefts, he added, happened not only in 2007 but also in 2004. Legal loopholes have muddied the search. "We had all these little canyons involving thresholds of proof," he said.
And, without his archives, Moran said trying to document the literally hundreds of painting and sketches swiped in the massive art heist was "next to impossible."
The cost of Moran's search has also been steep; attorney fees can mount up to $300 per hour. Hiring a private investigator, Moran said, cost thousands of dollars. But Wittman was the key in finding the stolen work. "He's the pope of stolen art," Moran said. "He got more done in four days than the FBI and police did in four years."
Perhaps the final rub, Moran said, was having to actually pay to buy back his own artwork once it was located; he was told it was less costly to buy back the pieces than pursue litigation. "I've had to pay for it three times over -- to create the work, hire an investigator, and pay to buy it back," Moran said.
But the end result of bringing home his work is priceless, Moran said.
Along the way, Moran has been educated about parade of nefarious characters he's uncovered on the black market of stolen art -- a thriving underworld that Moran said now represents a $4 to $6 billion per year endeavor.
There's no question, Moran said -- art is big business. "The new currency is art and collectibles," Moran said. "It's big. It's easier to steal art than create it."
He added, "It's all a scam, from beginning to end. These people hijack what should have been the celebration of life, and how it manifests itself in an artist's vision."
High profile art heists have made headlines in recent years, including the theft of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" from Oslo, Norway, and the theft of 13 works of art in 1990 from the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston, including Rembrandt’s "Storm on the Sea of Galilee."
But despite the "parasites," Moran said he has encountered some shining lights of honesty along the way. "There are some good citizens who wouldn't think of keeping stolen property," Moran said; one art collector from South Jamesport, upon learning that he had unwittingly purchased one of the stolen paintings, returned it to Moran. Another good Samaritan from Garden City did the same.
Of how it feels to have found his lost artwork, Moran said, "Can you really put it into words? It's sort of like, 'I haven't seen you -- how have you been? Some feel that any act of writing or art is sacred, because it's a level of expression, to communicate to others something much greater than facts, figures or numbers. The fact that it has come back to me brings a great sense of satisfaction."
Moran vows he will never sell the recovered pieces. "No one wil ever know, or understand, the stories behind them," he said.
Despite the obstacles, Moran remains imbued with optimism that additional breakthroughs are on the horizon; a new development may have been reported this week, he said.
"I'm hopeful that these are the first of many paintings to be returned," he said.