In Bolton Hill, disappearing works of art Rembski: Seventeen paintings by the famous portraitist vanished from his Bolton Hill home. The FBI says his widow's godson stole them.

October 14, 1998|By Michael James and Jamie Stiehm | Michael James and Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Joseph A. Imbrogulio III didn't just take an interest in renowned Baltimore artist Stanislav Rembski. He also took more than a dozen of the then-99-year-old man's valuable paintings during visits to his Bolton Hill home, the FBI alleged yesterday.

Imbrogulio, 47, is accused of stealing the paintings -- worth well over $150,000 -- in October 1996 from an attic studio while visiting Rembski and his wife, Dorothy, a federal affidavit says.

He was arrested Friday at his home in Aptos, Calif.

"He told us he wanted to get into the art world," said Dorothy Rembski. "We thought he was our friend."

Her husband died Sept. 14 of cancer at age 101 after a nine-decade career in which he distinguished himself as one of the nation's finest portraitists. His wife said he learned in his last months that 17 of his paintings had been stolen by a man he had trusted.

Imbrogulio is also accused of stealing an additional work, an oil portrait titled "Pieter Mulier the Younger," by Van Blommen, which the Rembskis stored in their home.

Federal prosecutors accuse him of selling it to an Italian collector through Sotheby's auction house in New York for $13,000.

The other paintings have been recovered, the FBI said. Imbrogulio turned in 14 of them and three others were seized by the FBI from his California home.

Imbrogulio is the godson of Dorothy Rembski and had come to Baltimore in 1996 to socialize with the couple at their townhouse, where the artist's paintings hang on nearly every wall.

Rembski is noted for portraits of many prominent Baltimoreans and famous Americans, including Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

'Smoking breaks'

During the visit, "Imbrogulio was quite taken with and very interested in Stanislav Rembski's paintings," an FBI affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore says. "Imbrogulio, who smoked, would often tell the couple that he was going to the front of the residence to smoke."

During those "smoking breaks," the Rembskis typically sat in a rear sitting room -- but on one occasion Dorothy Rembski heard Imbrogulio walk upstairs to the studio, the affidavit said.

The couple did not miss any paintings until 19 months later, in May. During a renovation of the attic studio, Dorothy Rembski noticed that several of the portraits were gone, the affidavit says.

Among the missing portraits were four of Rembski's first wife and one each of his father, a woman in pink, a woman in blue and a drawing of an angel. The missing paintings also included what federal prosecutors said is a striking self-portrait of a young Rembski wearing a vivid orange sweater.

The couple suspected that Imbrogulio had taken the artwork, and Dorothy Rembski called him to confront him.

After initially denying involvement, "Imbrogulio called her back and told her that his conscience was bothering him. He then admitted to stealing the paintings from the Rembski's residence and agreed to give them back," the affidavit says.

He turned over 14 paintings, but Dorothy Rembski later discovered that the missing Van Blommen had been sold at the Sotheby's auction without her husband's permission, the affidavit says.

'We trusted him'

Yesterday, Dorothy Rembski expressed her astonishment and anger at being betrayed by a family friend.

"His story was that he was very interested in Mr. Rembski's work," she said. "He said he wanted to do everything to build up his name. We trusted him implicitly."

Imbrogulio, described by Dorothy Rembski as a construction contractor, is free on bail pending a charge of transporting stolen property.

Efforts to reach him last night were unsuccessful.

At the time of his death last month, Rembski was completing commissions from his crowded studio in his townhouse, in the 1400 block of Park Ave., where he had lived since 1948.

In his lifetime, he had completed 1,500 oil portraits and was the subject of a centennial exhibition of his work nearly two years ago on his 100th birthday at New York's prestigious Salmagundi Club.

Pub Date: 10/14/98

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