Generations Later, Great-Granddaughter Continues Family's Search for Rare Oil Portrait of Prominent Pasadena Oil Executive Nelson A. Howard

Published : Tuesday, September 17, 2019 | 7:25 AM

Above is an image of the sought-after portrait, the only copy Gina Sammis can find to date.

Gina Sammis is on a quest.

Her family’s historian, she has been actively researching the elusive whereabouts of a family portrait of her great grandfather, a prominent early 20th century resident of Pasadena, Nelson A. Howard. She has been searching for the painting, by Canadian artist Austin Shaw, for many years and says she won’t stop until she gets closure on the work’s whereabouts.

“We would just like to know where the painting went,” Sammis, a Colorado resident, said. “I know the painting had to have been painted in the 1930s. We have the painting of my great-grandmother that was painted by the same artist, Austin Shaw, but we are missing the painting of my great-grandfather.”

Sammis’ great-grandfather Howard was an oil executive, and co-founder of Santa Anita Park, and lived on the grounds of Huntington Hotel. He passed away in 1941 at the age of 66.

Sammis’ great-grandmother, who passed at 81 years old in the same cottage on the grounds, known as the Howard House, outlived her husband. And so, apparently, has the portrait of her, which was also done by artist Shaw. But the whereabouts of Nelson Howard’s portrait remains a mystery.

“They were both painted by Austin Shaw, I believe in the 1930s,” Sammis said. “He painted quite a few of the prominent Pasadena people because he apparently lived there part-time. I had to dig to find any information on him. My great-grandfather was a legendary guy.”

Howard has a remarkable story. He was born in New Haven, Conn., was a graduate of the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale and went on to work at General Chemical Company in Chicago, advancing to the position of vice president and chairman of the executive committee. He moved to Southern California and was named director and chairman of the executive committee of the Union Oil Company.

The Howards lived at the Hotel Huntington, occupying one of the residences on the grounds of the hotel and he was also a director of the Hotel Huntington Corporation.

Howard had spent a lot of time overseeing the construction of Santa Anita, Sammis said, and she said she had the chance to interview Hal Roach, another director at Santa Anita.  Roach told her that Howard and he would speak every day on the phone.

“Hal told me this one day when he was about 102 years old and I interviewed him because I didn’t know anyone who knew my great-grandfather,” Sammis said. “My mother also tells stories about going to the racetrack and seeing Clark Gable and others. My great-grandfather was one of the people who put together the first Santa Anita Ball.”

With only facts gleaned from newspaper articles and stories handed down to her, Sammis has been playing detective to obtain the missing painting. She has asked hotel personnel and even consulted with a longtime neighbor of her great grandparents, and is waiting for a response.

Nelson A. Howard pictured with his racehorse Gosum in 1939 at the Santa Anita Racetrack.

The painter too is a story in himself, Sammis discovered. Canadian Shaw created lifelike portraits of his subjects during the time he lived in Los Angeles, and traveled abroad to pursue his work.

Sammis is hopeful.

“I am willing to pay for it, and if I can’t get it I would at least like a color copy that we can hang on the wall — even an 8 x 10,” she said.

Sammis has gone through many of the files and archives available online and in Pasadena. In addition to other outlets, she contacted the Pasadena Heritage, Pasadena Museum of History and even tried the Huntington Library, on the off chance that it may be in its illustrious collection.

“Henry Huntington collected 18th century English art and his wife collected French and Renaissance art,” said Lisa Blackburn, senior editor and special projects manager for the Huntington Library. “American art has been collected since their lifetimes but we don’t collect portraits of local people.”

Those in the antique and appraisal business said there are many cases where people are searching for lost, misplaced or stolen works. And sometimes, the works being sought are in family possession or they end up being accidentally donated to the second-hand charity outlets and occasionally are in the back of the family’s basement or in the attic.

Jean Rapagna, consignment coordinator with John Moran Auctioneers of Pasadena said that if the artist is popular with collectors, it’s easier to find a work in question.

“Also, if you register on some of the auction sites, it will give you information,” Rapagna said. “If any artist has anything in the auction world, the records are on these sites.”

Rapagna said good sites to check are AskArt.com and for those who are looking for something of high value there is the Art Loss Registry at www.artloss.com.

“I really want to find this painting,” Sammis said. “It would mean a lot to my family to have both my great-grandmother’s painting and my great-grandfather’s paintings together.”

If you know where the missing portrait is located or have further information about it, please contact Pasadena Now writer Donna Balancia at donnab@pasadenanowmagazine.com .

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