A family friend of former Tulane University art professor Pat Trivigno was arrested early Thursday after she was accused of stealing more than a dozen of his paintings estimated to be worth about $1.4 million, according to New Orleans police and the painter's widow, Eva Trivigno.
Authorities booked 41-year-old Courtney Lether, a makeup artist who works for the local film industry, on one count of theft and one count of "exploitation of the infirmed," according to arrest records filed with the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office.
Eva Trivigno said she was shocked to find Lether had stashed away about 14 of her late husband's large paintings in the guest house where the makeup artist lived. Trivigno said she noticed they were missing from her Uptown home Wednesday evening.
"She was a close friend of mine. She was a close friend of Pat's. She was actually more like a daughter," the 72-year-old widow said Thursday as she cataloged the recovered goods. "It's so very sad that this intelligent and beautiful woman had to do this."
Pat Trivigno, who his wife said was once called "the first abstract expressionist in New Orleans," was a prolific painter who has had his work featured all over the world, including in such prominent venues as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Born in New York after his parents emigrated from Naples, Italy, Trivigno spent 43 years as a professor at Tulane University until he retired in 1989. He died in 2013 at age 90.
Eva Trivigno said she had last seen her husband's paintings, along with several other stolen items, in her home on Marengo Street on Tuesday. She was in the process of moving to a new apartment, and after her personal assistant locked the residence she didn't return until about 11:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Trivigno told police she immediately noticed something was awry: Not only had Pat Trivigno's very large artworks vanished, but several other items were missing from the home, too.
After she called police to report a theft, officers Randolph Daniel and Daniel Berrincha peered through the front window of Lether's home and saw a large painting that was partially "covered up by a bedsheet," records show.
Lether had been Trivigno's tenant for five years and had keys to the main house to care for it when her landlady was away. She told Trivigno that she took the artworks "to conduct a personal photograph book," according to the police report.
Lether said she had entered the house to take photographs of the deceased artist's work at 5:15 p.m., about 15 minutes after Trivigno had locked up for the day. A post on her Instagram account shows that Lether photographed at least one painting and uploaded it on Wednesday.
"My Pisces Twin Pat Trivigno," Lether's Instagram caption reads, next to a painting depicting a man, two rolls of lifesavers and the words "Thanks to a real life-saver! Gerda Cook."
Her message continued: "I miss you my friend. Sending you love and light. Xo," with several hashtags, including #PatTrivigno and #artist.
Eva Trivigno, however, said she believed Lether had taken the paintings in order to steal them, adding that there was "no reason" her friend and tenant should have moved the artworks into the other house.
"I didn't give them away, so she just took them," Trivigno said. "It's such a disappointment."
Police said Lether was arrested after she acknowledged she didn't have permission to remove any of Trivigno's belongings. During a court hearing Thursday, Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell set bail at $30,000 and released Lether on her own recognizance.
Lether, who has worked on such movies as "Green Lantern" and "Jurassic World," was ordered to stay away from Trivigno's residence and to report back to court for drug testing, records show.
On Thursday, as she sorted through her husband's remaining works to be packed up and moved to storage, donated or sold, Trivigno said Lether was well acquainted with the paintings and would have known their value.
In recent decades, Trivigno's art had been featured at the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, his wife said. In 1994, NOMA showed a major retrospective of his work, which critics say was a combination of the abstract and the traditional.
He was known for painting abstract pieces in colorful geometric forms, as well as those capturing patterns in nature, including flocks of egret wings.
His widow said his work changed over the years, pointing to portraits he drew of her and city landscapes drawn of St. Peter's Square in Rome.
Among the pieces Eva Trivigno, an art historian, said were taken was a 62-by-56-inch multicolored painting incorporating Incan textile designs and images of South American statues, as well as an orange and red piece depicting Siena, Italy, at sunset.
Other items taken included a random assortment of goods that ranged from having high value to being practically worthless, she added, including a piano bench, a family Bible, several gold goblets and used paintbrushes.
"She had hidden them all over," Trivigno said about the items she found in the guest house. "I mean, stuff was everywhere."