On Tuesday, December 18, 1973, at 1:57 a.m., two men wearing ski masks and gloves pointed a gun at a Taft Museum of Art night watchman and forced him to take them inside the gallery from the second floor. They tied her arms and legs to a chair, then stole two paintings and left.
The paintings, “Man Leaning on a Ledge” and “Portrait of an Elderly Woman”, were by Rembrandt, the famous and revered Dutch painter, dating from the 1640s. They were part of the art collection at 316 Pine Street and had were bequeathed to the people of Cincinnati by Charles Phelps Taft in 1927. They were appraised for insurance purposes for $250,000 and $80,000, respectively.
The theft made headlines. “Two stolen Taft Rembrandts.” “Art theft sparks international hunt.” Cincinnati police worked with the FBI and Interpol in hopes of recovering the paintings, which could be sold on the black market or ransomed.
Enquirer art critic Owen Findsen wondered why the thieves had “selected two paintings of less importance than others they might have taken”. They had ignored the more significant Rembrandt, “Portrait of a Man Rising from His Chair”, which was temporarily on display with a companion portrait from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and was shown on a different floor than usual.
Every day revealed bizarre twists in the case. “The entire episode took on the aura of a late-night mystery movie,” wrote The Enquirer.
Cloak and Dagger
This Tuesday evening, a man named James L. Hough called John W. Warrington, the chairman of the Taft museum committee, saying he had leads on where to find the paintings.
They agreed to meet at the Tri-County Mall. Hough pointed to undercover cops in the mall as they spoke at a cafe. He said he wanted a finder’s fee and would act as the museum’s agent to negotiate the return of the paintings.
“It all seemed like a cloak and dagger to me at the time,” Warrington told the Cincinnati Post.
The thieves, communicating by telephone with Hough, offered to return one of the paintings as proof that they had the stolen art. Warrington said Hough dramatically pulled an instruction sheet from his shoe that sent him to a drop point in Warren County, but nothing was there. The thieves had become nervous. A second drop point was also empty.
So, Warrington returned home, where he received a call from Al Schottelkotte, the venerable WCPO-TV reporter.
An unexpected bounty
“I’ve been working in current affairs for 30 years, some rather strange and unexpected things have happened, but perhaps the most unexpected of all happened tonight,” Schottelkotte said as he opened his 23-hour newscast. hours on December 20.
He stood on a WCPO soundstage with Warrington, who identified the recovered ‘Portrait of an Elderly Woman’ in an on-air gold leaf frame, and Hough, introduced as a ‘real estate broker’ who had retrieved the painting from a barn. on Springdale Road near Blue Rock Road in Colerain Township.
Hough made it clear to viewers – and thieves – that he was working as a middleman for the Taft Museum. When Hough retrieved the painting, instead of calling the police, he had called the news anchor.
The following night, Schottelkotte recounted meeting Hough at the Regis Lounge in Cheviot an hour before the news aired. It showed footage of Hough carrying the painting covered in a flowery pink quilt, a lit cigarette between his fingers, and placing it in the back seat of Schottelkotte’s Buick to transport it to the WCPO studio.
“I doubt my car will ever carry more distinguished freight,” Schottelkotte said.
After the broadcast, the painting was eventually handed over to police, who were fuming offstage.
No one seemed to know much about Hough. Besides his real estate company, he co-owned the Speak-Easy salon in Kleve and was known to drive around with a pet lion cub in his car. “He emerges…some kind of flamboyant figure on the outside – and a shadowy enigma on the inside,” wrote Enquirer reporter Marvin Beard.
“Hey, I know, you know, I have to be suspect #1, okay, but I also know I’m clean,” Hough told reporters. “…I don’t think I’m a fool. I have a good deal.
Through Hough, the thieves demanded a $200,000 ransom, but Warrington did not budge above $100,000, from the museum’s endowment.
“They said if they didn’t get $200,000, they got a five gallon gas can and would burn the painting and send the ashes to the museum,” Hough said.
Yet, after numerous appeals, the thieves finally accepted $100,000 in unmarked 10s and 20s, placed in two bags inside a suitcase. Hough was instructed to put the money in an ice machine at Lorelei Tavern in Fosters, Warren County. After counting the money, they called back with the location of the other painting. He was found under the steps of a vacant house near Fosters. The only damage was a chip in the frame.
Police, who had held off until the paintings were recovered, immediately intervened and arrested the thieves, Carl Horsley and Henry Dawn, and the getaway driver, Raymond McDonough, all of Loveland. The ransom money was recovered, minus $18, which they had spent at Frisch.
The Taft Museum gave Hough a check for $15,000 as a finder’s fee, but he returned it.
During the grand jury session, a secret informant named Donald Lee Johnson was granted partial immunity in exchange for his testimony. Five men have been charged, including Johnson and Hough, the middleman.
Hamilton County District Attorney Simon L. Leis Jr. agreed to allow four of the defendants to plead guilty to less serious charges if they testified against Hough, who was charged with extortion, harboring a criminal and concealment.
On March 13, 1974, a copyrighted story by journalist Peggy Lane described what The Enquirer had learned about the case, but without names – the story of a mastermind who was double-crossed and a failed robbery. At the September trial, the burglary, as the prosecution’s star witness explained, happened exactly as the story had presented it.
The so-called secret informant, Johnson, has been identified as the mastermind. He had figured out a way to steal two Rembrandts from the Taft Museum and enlisted Horsley and Dawn, but they didn’t seem interested. Instead, they double-crossed Johnson and committed the robbery without him.
Except they didn’t know the most valuable Rembrandts had been moved, so they stole the wrong paintings.
The thieves then turned to Johnson for help selling the paintings, and he contacted Hough, whom he had previously used as a fence or dealer in stolen goods.
Johnson thought they could get $300,000 for the paintings, but he said Hough concocted the ransom scheme and contacted museum officials.
Hough’s attorney, Bernard J. Gilday Jr., questioned Johnson’s testimony and veracity. “It has not been established that Johnson is an expert burglar,” he objected.
“I am, Mr. Gilday,” Johnson replied.
Horsley and Dawn were sentenced to one to five years in prison. Johnson and McDonough were sentenced to six months to five years.
Based on their testimony, Hough was convicted on all three counts and sentenced to between 3 and 20 years. He was paroled after 27 months and then spent another year in prison for a parole violation. Despite being a felon, Hough ran for sheriff of Franklin County, Indiana in 1986 but did not win.
The final twist: Art experts later determined that the two paintings were probably not by Rembrandt after all.
Sources: Investigator, Post Office and WCPO records; “Stealing Rembrandt: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists” by Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg.