Astley David Montague Cooper And The Matter Of Mrs. Stanford’s Jewels

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When she looked back on the dark episode later, Mrs. Leland Stanford, of the California railroad empire Stanfords, San Francisco and Palo Alto, must have regretted many times the day she let That Man into her house.

It all began innocently enough, heaven knows. In 1891, she and her husband, the former governor and senator, had opened Leland Stanford, Jr., University, in honor of their dead, departed son. In 1897, to ensure the finished construction of the university’s Memorial Church, she decided to sell her extensive jewel collection (later appraised by Shreve S Co. of San Francisco at more than one hundred thousand dollars). Before packing up the jewels, she thought it would be nice to have them immortalized in paint, so that future students of the university could admire the gift that had been given them. To that end, she engaged the services of a professional artist in San Jose, Astley David Montague Cooper.

Certainly there was little in Cooper’s career or reputation to arouse suspicion. Born in St. Louis in 1856, the son of a respected doctor, he had gone on to become a well-known painter of Indians and Western scenes.

The first hint of trouble came on the second day of his assignment. Bertha Berner, Mrs. Stanford’s secretary, later testified that “he rose … made a deep bow with a flourish, drew a flask from his pocket, and took a drink. Then he said, ‘Now you watch me put a little fire into that sapphire!’ And he surely did.” Twice Cooper could not find the canvas with the brush and had to be sent home, but somehow he managed to bring more fire to the jewels and finish the painting.

And there it might have ended—except that before the painting could be hung, a San Jose policeman brought Mrs. Stanford some disagreeable news: another painting of the jewels, with her name prominently displayed, had been spotted in San Jose, hanging in the front window of a saloon! Cooper, the scoundrel, apparently had painted a duplicate from memory and had traded it for drinks. Stricken with outrage and humiliation, Mrs. Stanford had the official painting put out of sight. After her death in 1905 it went to the university, and is now in the possession of the Stanford University Museum of Art. It is reproduced at the right (above it is a detail from a portrait of Mrs. Stanford herself, done by Leon-Joseph-Florentin Bonnat in 1881).

Cooper continued to drink, and was at least once accused of stealing the paintings of his brother-in-law’s nephew, folding them at the bottom, painting in his own name, then selling them. In spite of these and similar eccentricities, his reputation barely suffered. He continued painting until his death in 1924, and was suitably eulogized in the local press.

—T. H. W.