The Candle Club has its painting back.
Actually, it’s not the painting. But it’s very close – and maybe even a little better. Its acquisition will be a story Candle Clubbers will tell for years, said John Fitzhum, the general manager of the private supper club at 6135 E. 13th St.
Late last month, The Eagle published a story about the theft of an iconic nude painting that had been hanging in the Candle Club’s men’s room since the late 1970s or early 1980s.
The painting, acquired by the club’s founder Ted Werts, was of a woman wearing nothing but a pink hair ribbon and some jewelry reclining near a jug of Chianti and two goblets.
Sometime late on the Friday night before Thanksgiving, the painting disappeared, likely stolen by someone who slipped out a back door with it, unnoticed.
After the story about the theft was published, the painting became an even bigger conversation piece than it already was, Fitzhum said.
On Friday, local art appraiser John Boldenow walked into the club clutching a copy of the article, Fitzhum said.
“He said, ‘I think I have your stolen painting,’ ” Fitzhum said.
Boldenow said the piece was about 3 foot by 5 foot and was in a gold frame. He’d gotten it from someone in exchange for an unpaid debt, he said.
Fitzhum knew immediately it wasn’t his painting. The one that went missing was much smaller and was unframed. But he told Boldenow he’d like to take a look.
Boldenow took him to the attic of the historic Hillcrest apartments at Douglas and Rutan, where he had it stored. As theater director at the Wichita Center for the Arts, he figured he’d use it as a prop someday.
It was the same woman and the same recline in the painting, Fitzhum said. But in addition to the size difference and the frame, the background colors were different, and this woman had toppled one of her Chianti glasses.
Boldenow told Fitzhum that the stretching of the canvas and the mitering of the frame suggested that the painting had been produced in the 1930s. He theorized that the Candle Club’s longtime painting was a replica of this original.
He offered to let Fitzhum have the painting for the club.
“The first thing I did when I got back from the Hillcrest was I dropped everything and hung it up,” Fitzhum said. “I had to move the hand towel dispenser.”
The new painting was too large to go where the first one was, so it’s now hanging on the opposite wall, Fitzhum said. It’s not firmly anchored – yet – though he’s contemplating a Plexiglass case. This one is so big, though, a thief would have trouble sneaking off with it, he said.
The new painting is not even the only replacement Fitzhum has.
The day before Boldenow stopped by, Kirby’s Beer Store owner Alex Thomas, also a member of the Candle Club, dropped off a smaller replica he had commissioned.
“And he left me this cool little note that said, ‘From one Wichita bar with rich history to another, please accept this recreation of a classic,’ ” Fitzhum said.
Fitzhum is keeping that one safe in his office until he decides where to put it.
He’s also still trying to decide how to respond to a local doctor and longtime club member who wrote him describing the theft as “a tragic loss” and offering to have his artist wife paint a reproduction.
“Most people collect salt and pepper shakers and snow globes,” Fitzhum said with a laugh. “I am now apparently collecting naked women with Chianti bottles.”