Priceless Artwork Gone

Federal agents are on the hunt for Depression-era paintings, some by San Diego artists

They're priceless and a part of American history, but most have disappeared.

American artists produced about 200,000 paintings during the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a government program that put millions of unemployed Americans back to work.

Best known for its large-scale projects, the WPA also helped struggling artists. The artwork produced was meant to be publicly displayed, but the majority of the paintings were lost, stolen or misplaced.

Local artist Charles Reiffel's paintings can be seen all over San Diego. Some, as part of the WPA, are displayed in city and county offices. He was considered one of the most important landscape painters of his time.

“He’s a plein-air artist, where the idea is to go out and paint in nature,” Tammie Bennett with the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park explained.

But some of Reiffel's work vanished, along with thousands of other WPA pieces by other artists.

"It’s part of the fun of the chase. You know, the unanswered questions,” said Mike Ramos, a special agent with the Inspector General’s office. Part of his job is tracking the missing pieces down.

“It's the public's art, and we're just returning it back to the public,” he added.

Nine Reiffel paintings are now at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park after federal agents recovered them at an estate sale.

According to Ramos, reports indicated the estate that sold them belonged to a former teacher's estate. Knowingly selling or buying WPA art is a federal crime.

“We've had tremendous success. And we're quite pleased on our return on investment, thus far,” said Ramos.

The nine Reiffel paintings are considered priceless because they cannot be sold or purchased, but Ramos said they are valued at around $350,000.

Of the 200,000 WPA paintings considered "missing,” Ramos said they have only recovered or documented 27,000.

The public is aware of WPA artwork for sale or have knowledge of existing pieces in non-federal repositories (libraries, schools, hospitals), Ramos said they can contact him at (415)522-2756. They can also remain anonymous by contacting the GSA's hotline at 800-424-5210 or

An exhibit of plein-air paintings showing the landscape of California from ocean to rural scenes, including works from Charles Reiffel, can be seen from March 22 to May 3, 2015 at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido. For more information, click here.

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