WISCASSET — Over three years ago a large triptych painting of cows by Mat O’Donnell was stolen right out of his isolated studio in Wiscasset. The theft occurred just days before the 4-by-3-foot painting was to be displayed in a gallery of bovine-themed art at Treats in Wiscasset.

O’Donnell, who has been painting for decades, made his living from cow artwork for many years. Cow-based art is what allowed him to get by as an artist, and even after he switched subject matters years ago, he makes a point to paint a new cow each year to remember the subject that allowed him to do what he loves.

The theft in 2014 was odd. Nothing else in his studio, which is filled with finished pieces and other expensive objects, was taken. The only thing that was touched was the cow triptych and a small satchel carrying an incomplete story O’Donnell was writing. O’Donnell said he thought the theft was personal.“Anybody who really knows me, who said ‘I want you to go steal from this guy, I want you to take where his heart lives,’ they would know to take a cow.”

A story ran in the Coastal Journal about it, with images of the painting and a plea from O’Donnell for information. But no new information was found and O’Donnell assumed the painting was gone for good.

He’d almost entirely forgotten about it, until just a few weeks ago when he came back to his studio to find a large package propped against the door. “I had no idea what the package could even be,” he said.

Inside was the triptych that was stolen over three years ago, with not a scratch on it. Attached with a couple pieces of masking tape was a small, handwritten note saying simply “Sorry Matt.”
“I got pretty teary eyed,” said O’Donnell. “I just lost it.”

A small hand-written note is all that accompanied the cow painting. Staff photo by Chris Chase

The painting was originally a part of a series of 50 that he had done with aluminum aircraft paint that he acquired by bartering with a local. He had only finished it a month before it was stolen.

He credits the Coastal Journal story with the painting’s return. Because it had been reported stolen and images of it were out there, he believes the thief was too scared to sell it or display it. “If you can’t show it, why have it?”

While stolen items being returned isn’t unthinkable, having it returned years later is unusual, said Craig Worster of Wiscasset Police. “I’ve seen people that have returned items after they thought that they were caught by camera or something like that. But I’ve never seen it return out of the blue with an apology.”

O’Donnell said he’s just happy the painting is back. As for the possibility of future thefts, he said, “I already got a new security system.”

He took the painting to Treats to show it off. Three years after it was supposed to hang for a show, it finally made it inside.

For more information on O’Donnell, or to see some of his art, visit matodonnell369.blogspot.com. In addition, he has a show running from Sept. 6 through Sept. 29 at  Midcoast Conservancy’s Water Street office in Wiscasset.