Police discover valuable Momaday art in condemned apartment

SANTA FE, N.M. — Art showed up in a surprising place last week, when a police officer discovered more than $33,000 worth of prints by renowned artist Al Momaday in a condemned property in the Northeast Heights.

According to the incident report, an Albuquerque police officer accompanied city officials who were boarding up an apartment known to him as a site for stashing stolen property. He spotted a portfolio box on the floor containing 72 prints by Momaday, a Native American artist from the Kiowa tribe in Oklahoma.

The artist lived on the Jemez Pueblo for many years and died in 1981.

Tanner Tixier, a spokesman for APD, said that while police don’t know for sure the artwork was stolen, the location where the prints were found is suspicious. The apartment near Juan Tabo and Indian School is a former methamphetamine lab and was condemned by the city more than two years ago, according to the report.

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“That’s why we’re working with the museum,” Tixier said. “The house where it was found would not be conducive to the type of environment where you’d find $30,000 worth of art.”

The officer brought the box to the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History for assistance.

“He just felt it would be safer to have them come to the museum, and maybe we’d be able to provide some clues,” said Andrew Connors, the curator of art at the museum. “Generally we don’t get involved in investigations of stolen art, but in this case it’s kind of an odd set of prints.”

Connors said he doesn’t believe the portfolio came from a private collection because there are multiple prints of the same four images. A gallery or collection would most likely have framed and matted the prints, he added. The works appear to have been packed by a printer for the artist or a seller, since they are perfectly preserved.

A portfolio box of artwork by Al Momaday includes 72 prints of four images, including artist proofs and numbered editions, suggesting they were in storage or transport when they were stolen. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

A portfolio box of artwork by Al Momaday includes 72 prints of four images, including artist proofs and numbered editions, suggesting they were in storage or transport when they were stolen. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“They may have been stolen out of a warehouse or a back storage building behind a gallery or an artist’s estate,” Connors said. “We have no idea where they could have come from. Wherever it was, they haven’t noticed they’re gone yet.”

Al Momaday’s son, N. Scott Momaday, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and visiting professor who teaches Native American literature at the University of New Mexico. When he moved his belongings from a storage unit to a house in Santa Fe in mid-December, he discovered several items were missing, including a computer and possibly boxes of his father’s artwork, his assistant Michael Meeches said.

“The thing is, he had a vast amount of work and we don’t know what is missing,” Meeches said. “We had paintings in a filing cabinet and boxes of prints of his work and his father’s work.”

Meeches said he mentioned the theft at the storage unit where N. Scott Momaday’s possessions had been stored, but he did not file a police report because they don’t know what was stolen. He’s not sure when the items disappeared, but it was sometime between when movers transferred the boxes to the storage unit in September and mid-December, when they were moved again.

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N. Scott Momaday was surprised to learn from the Journal that his father’s prints had been found in Albuquerque and said he hadn’t been contacted by police.

Al Momaday’s art has been shown in several galleries and museums throughout the state, Oklahoma and Arizona, and he is one of the more famous artists in the genre.

“He was a full-blood Kiowa Indian and really a primitive-style painter,” N. Scott Momaday said about his father.

“He was a very good one and made a great reputation for himself in the Southwest. He followed in the tradition of the Kiowa five (a group of Native American artists in the early 20th century). He went on to make a sound reputation.”

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