It had been some months since Susan Edgman-Levitan had decided that it was high time she decluttered her home Chestnut Hill, a Boston suburb. On one particular fall day in 2014, it’s the turn of her overflowing coat cupboard. Stashed in there is a pile of framed pictures that really need to be tidied. Flipping through them, she comes to an abrupt halt. One of the pictures in the pile has stopped her dead in her tracks.
One of the artworks, actually a painting in oils of a distinguished-looking man, had jumped right out at her. Familiar though it was, she couldn’t quite put a name to the face. Then it clicked into place. This was a portrait of President Gerald Ford. Ford was the vice president who succeeded President Richard Nixon after the latter had resigned in disgrace in 1974.
But how had this ended up in the Edgman-Levitans’ coat closet? Susan and her husband Richard racked their brains without finding an answer. They asked their daughter, who had left other things in storage at the family home, if she knew anything about it. They asked friends. But nobody had an answer for this strange mystery. Then by sheer luck Susan met Paul O’Neill at a conference. O’Neill had worked for Ford during his presidency. He agreed to try to get the mysterious portrait to the Ford family.
Edgman-Levitan sent the painting to O’Neill and, for the time being, he mounted it on a wall in his office. O’Neill’s son was intrigued by the portrait, so he looked up the name of the artist who’d signed it, Margaret Holland Sargent. And it turned out that she’d been commissioned by Time magazine. The portrait was used in the publication’s bicentennial edition in 1976. O’Neill junior called Sargent to tell her he had the painting. Until then she’d believed it was in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.
But a check with the National Portrait Gallery confirmed that it had never received the Ford portrait as part of the large batch of artworks donated to them by Time in the 1970s. So somewhere along the line, someone else had got hold of it. In other words, it had been stolen by persons unknown. But how it ended up in the Edgman-Levitan coat closet remains an unsolved puzzle. Ultimately, in 2015, the painting was given to Susan Ford Bales, President Ford’s daughter, much to her delight.