Six detailed lists of government artifacts released this month by the new gubernatorial administration sheds a lot of light on what art, antiques and artifacts the V.I. government has stashed away across several historic properties.
The list was put together by former V.I. Government Conservator Julio Encarnacion III.
After 2017’s hurricanes, Government House on St. Thomas stood unlocked for an undetermined period of time, calling into question the security of historical artifacts and paintings by Camille Pissaro and others, some valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars. Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s administration gave assurances the items were safe but were evasive about the status and location of the artifacts.
In April 2018, Mapp hired Encarnacion as a conservator of V.I. government art and artifacts, a move that caused some controversy because Encarnacion is largely self-taught, without degrees in museum science or art conservation.
When media requested access to and lists of government artifacts, the Mapp administration said Encarnacion was doing an extensive inventory and the results would be made public as soon as he was done. Encarnacion confirmed this at the time.
Asked about media reports he was terminated for not producing an inventory, Encarnacion said he produced a report, produced lists and value estimates for insurance, restored a number of pieces of furniture and other items. He said he was under the impression he was simply let go like most other non-classified exempt appointees.
Encarnacion said he had not finished all the work when his employment ended, but he had made a lot of progress, including creating the six spreadsheets of insurance valuations released Jan. 19 by the new administration of Gov. Albert Bryan.
Government House spokesman Richard Motta said in a recent phone call that those lists were provided by the Department of Property and Procurement.
Encarnacion said he created the spreadsheets and provided them to Property and Procurement.
“I spent a lot of hours making sure the items were safe and everything accounted for during my tenure,” Encarnacion said. “I don’t feel I got enough time to do what I wanted but I did get the inventory done,” he said.
Motta said Tuesday he was not personally aware of the specific circumstances of Encarnacion’s termination.
“Many exempt employees from the previous administration are no longer with the current administration,” Motta said.
While in early January he was not aware one way or the other, “I can confirm that Government House staff has said he has in fact done a lot of work to catalogue and restore government artifacts, particularly after the hurricanes,” Motta said.
Encarnacion began an inventory of the materials in Government House on St. Thomas, the St. Thomas Government House Annex, Government House St. Croix, Estate Catharineberg, the Old Danish School (now called the Arthur Abel Complex) in Frederiksted and storage in Sub Base.
He said he also looked at The Battery on St. John but said it was boarded up and he could not get in. He said he was told there were no antiques and all the furniture was modern.
Along with the insurance estimates, Encarnacion produced a “work summary,” which included the lists and value estimates, numerous photographs and a day-by-day account of his activities. He has a copy and he said he left a copy with Government House.
Data files are on government computers which he no longer has access to, he said.
Encarnacion’s work summary has value assessments that are identical, letter for letter, price for price, in the same sequence, including typos and contractions, to the insurance estimates provided recently by Government House. Both refer to a painting “Bay of St. Thomas by Wy,” for instance.
Some days list mundane meetings and visits to schools. Others have interesting tidbits, like this for June 18 to 21:
“Upon my arrival on St. Thomas, I notified Mr. Camsell (Chauffeur) that I will first need to purchase a key to open display cabinet that is in the St.Thomas Government House Ball Room. I was notified that someone got upset one day, walked to the waterfront and threw away the key that opens the cabinet.”
Or the June 19 entry: “Spoke with Joachim Pissarro regarding his grandfather’s paintings and sketches we have now at Christiansted Government House.”
In a recent phone call, Encarnacion said hearing about the painter directly from his grandson was a highlight of his tenure as conservator.
“That was an interesting conversation. He told me some stories,” Encarnacion said.
The work was often dusty, dank and sweaty. But sometimes people went out of their way to help. An entry for July 16-19 describes assessing part of Estate Catharineberg, the historic structure sometimes used as a gubernatorial residence:
“Mario and I started my assessment at 9:30 a.m. where I took photos of the surrounding areas and outside of the building. I entered through the kitchen doors of the south wing that was partially hinged and also blocked by vines and other plants. The kitchen was invested with mosquitos, limited light and air circulation.”
Describing that day over the phone, Encarnacion made a point of thanking Mario Rodriguez for helping.
“He is a maintenance worker at Government House and was adamant he wanted to help me. I really, really want to thank him. He was the only one to help and it was a mess, with mosquitoes, water on the floor, hot, dusty with the roof peeling off. I took images of everything in there … and finished the assessment with Mario’s help.”
Separately from the main assessment, Encarnacion said he also restored 24 tabouret lion’s paw stools from the St. Croix Government House Ballroom.
“They were replicas given by the Queen of Denmark,” he said. “I figured they would be a good starting project.”
He worked to get them ready before the June 4 ceremony at the Government House to unveil portraits of former Govs. Charles Turnbull and Roy Schneider.
Toward the end of the year, with an initial assessment done, Encarnacion said he began preparing to prioritize pieces for restoration, Encarnacion said.
In October, he got estimates for restoring a mural in Government House on St. Thomas.
“Conservators gave us an estimate of more than $100,000 to restore it,” he said. One company, Parma Mural Conservators, suggested it might be worth removing the murals from the wall and putting them into portable frames, rather than having them glued onto the wall. That way, if there were another disaster, they could easily be moved for safekeeping, Encarnacion said.
Encarnacion said there are limitations to the work. For instance, his appraisals are estimates. He said he was asked for values to give for insurance and he did many hours of research on how similar items have sold within the past five years.
“These estimates are only for information purposes and subject to be appraised by professionals,” he said.
Asked about concerns over his academic credentials, Encarnacion said his role should be seen as a coordinator and that he did not need to be certified to restore fine art to be able to catalogue items and arrange for specialized services.
“I am not an artist but I am competent to oversee artists,” he said.
A St. Croix native, Encarnacion is an aficionado and collector of Virgin Islands art and culture, His personal collection consists of more than 700 pieces dating back to the pre-Columbian era. It includes Danish Colonial coins dating to 1748, photographs and books from the 19th century, furnishings passed down over three generations, rum receipts from brigs that landed in the territory in the early 1800s and paintings from many local artists. He also has a V.I. culture-oriented blog: The Native Son.
Responding to media concern and controversy about the whereabouts of the most valuable paintings, Encarnacion said “we had them the entire time at the Government House Annex” and reporters “could have come and seen them at any time.”
While Encarnacion may have been willing to show the art work, Mapp and other Government House officials repeatedly rebuffed multiple requests from the Source and several other V.I. media outlets to see the major items.
“To ensure safety and minimize any potential damages to the pieces, the Office of the Governor at this time will not retrieve the works solely for the purpose of the V.I. Source viewing them,” Chief of Protocol Lisa Webster-Potter told the Source in an email in early 2018. Later, responding to requests for proof the items were secure, Attorney General Claude Walker referred to Encarnacion’s project, which was not released before the end of the Mapp administration.
Motta said the administration might be willing to consider conferring with Encarnacion to avoid duplicating efforts as they assess the government’s artifacts but said it was low on a long list of pressing priorities and would likely not happen right away.
There are past appraisals of a portion of the government’s art and antiquities that are partial inventories but nothing as expansive as Encarnacion’s assessment has been released previously. One from Christie’s covers only Government House.
Next: Can The New Lists Help Tell Us Whether Anything Went Missing Over The Years?