On Tuesday, Dec. 18, 1973, at 1:57 a.m., two men wearing ski masks and gloves pointed a pistol at a night watchman at the Taft Museum of Art and forced him to take them inside to the second-floor gallery. They taped his arms and legs to a chair, then stole two paintings and left.
The paintings, “Man Leaning on a Sill” and “Portrait of an Elderly Woman,” were by Rembrandt, the revered Dutch Old Master painter, dating to the 1640s. They were part of the art collection at 316 Pike Street and had been 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 splashy headlines. “Two Taft Rembrandts Stolen.” “Art Theft Triggers International Hunt.” The 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 lesser importance than others they could have taken.” They had ignored the more significant Rembrandt, “Portrait of a Man Rising from His Chair,” which was temporarily exhibited with a companion portrait from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and was being shown on a different floor than usual.
Each day revealed bizarre twists in the case. “The entire episode took on the aura of a late-night mystery movie,” The Enquirer wrote.
Cloak and dagger
That Tuesday night, 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 Tri-County Shopping Center. Hough pointed out the undercover cops in the mall as they talked in a coffee shop. He said he wanted a finder’s fee and would act as the museum’s agent in negotiating the return of the paintings.
“It all seemed sort of cloak-and-dagger to me at the time,” Warrington told the Cincinnati Post.
The thieves, communicating through telephone calls to Hough, offered to return one of the paintings as proof they had the stolen art. Warrington said Hough dramatically pulled a sheet of instructions out of his shoe that sent him to a drop point in Warren County, but nothing was there. The thieves had gotten nervous. A second drop point was also empty.
So, Warrington went home, where he received a call from Al Schottelkotte, the venerable WCPO-TV newsman.
“I’ve been in news work 30 years now, had some rather strange, unexpected things happen, but possibly the most unexpected of all took place tonight,” Schottelkotte said as he opened his 11 p.m. newscast on Dec. 20.
He stood on a WCPO soundstage along with Warrington, who identified the recovered “Portrait of an Elderly Woman” in a gold-leaf frame on the air, and Hough, introduced as a “real estate broker” who had recovered the painting in a barn on Springdale Road near Blue Rock Road in Colerain Township.
Hough made it clear to viewers – and the thieves – that he was working as the go-between on behalf of the Taft Museum. When Hough recovered 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 broadcast. He showed footage of Hough carrying the painting covered by a flowered pink quilt, a lit cigarette between his fingers, and placing it in the back seat of Schottelkotte’s Buick for transport to the WCPO studio.
“I doubt if my car will ever carry a more distinguished bit of freight,” Schottelkotte said.
After the broadcast, the painting was finally handed over to the police, who were fuming off-stage.
Nobody seemed to know much about Hough. Aside from his real estate company, he co-owned the Speak-Easy Lounge in Cleves and was known to drive around with a pet lion cub in his car. “He emerges … as a sort of flamboyant figure on the outside – and a shadowy enigma on the inside,” Enquirer reporter Marvin Beard wrote.
“Hey, I know, you know, that I have got to be suspect No. 1, OK, but I also know that I’m clean,” Hough told reporters. “… I don’t think I’m a damn fool. I’ve got a good business.”
Through Hough, the thieves demanded a ransom of $200,000, but Warrington wouldn’t budge above $100,000, to come from the museum’s endowment.
“They said if they don’t get $200,000 they have a five-gallon can of gasoline and will burn the painting and mail the ashes to the museum,” Hough said.
Yet, after many calls, the thieves eventually agreed to $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 they counted the money, they called back with the location of the other painting. It was found under the steps of a vacant house near Fosters. The only damage was a chip in the frame.
The police, who had been holding back until the paintings were recovered, immediately swooped in and arrested the thieves, Carl Horsley and Henry Dawn, and the getaway driver, Raymond McDonough, all from Loveland. The ransom money was recovered, minus $18, which they had spent at Frisch’s.
The Taft Museum gave Hough a $15,000 check as a finder’s fee, but he returned it.
During the grand jury session, a secret informant named Donald Lee Johnson was given partial immunity in exchange for his testimony. Five men were indicted, including Johnson and Hough, the intermediary.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Simon L. Leis Jr. agreed to allow four of the defendants to plead guilty to lesser charges if they testified against Hough, who was charged with extortion, harboring a felon and receiving stolen goods.
On March 13, 1974, a copyrighted story by reporter Peggy Lane outlined what The Enquirer had learned about the case, but without names – a tale of a mastermind who was double-crossed and a bungled heist. In the trial that September the heist, as explained by prosecution star witness Johnson, played out just as the article had presented.
The so-called secret informant, Johnson, was 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 to be interested. Instead, they double-crossed Johnson and did the robbery without him.
Except they didn’t know that the more valuable Rembrandts had been moved, so they stole the wrong paintings.
The thieves then turned to Johnson for help to sell the paintings, and he contacted Hough, whom he had previously used as a fence, or dealer in stolen merchandise.
Johnson thought they could get $300,000 for the paintings, but he said Hough concocted the ransom scheme and contacted the museum officials.
Hough’s attorney, Bernard J. Gilday Jr., questioned Johnson’s testimony and truthfulness. “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 3-20 years. He was paroled after 27 months, 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: Enquirer, Post and WCPO archives; “Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists” by Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg.