On a Saturday in early September, Anna Banowsky came to one conclusion after looking through a family member’s belongings: Her great uncle, OU’s 10th President Bill Banowsky, was an art thief.
The discovery occurred when the Banowsky family was combing through the home of Richard and Anne Banowsky, Anna’s grandparents, in Garland, Texas, to divide family belongings after their recent relocation to a nursing home.
While taking photographs off the walls to determine whether items were heirlooms or could be tossed away, a black and white photograph in a brown frame caught the family’s attention.
The back of the frame contained a square, white piece of paper that read:
“Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma Library. Dr. William Banowsky has permission for one time non-exclusive use of this print for publication purposes. Date: 12.8.80.”
It appeared to Anna, a political science senior at OU with intentions of pursuing cultural property law — a field dedicated to returning artworks to the proper owners — that great uncle Bill had borrowed a piece of valuable property from the university, and he had chosen not to return it.
“We’re going through all this stuff — what do they have, where does it need to go, what’s family stuff, what’s stuff that no one cares about that we can donate,” Anna said. “And then we’re like, ‘Oh, this is not ours at all.”
The photo in question was taken in the small southwestern Oklahoma town of Hollis during a church revival. The photo was donated to the Western History Collections' photograph division as part of a collection of 98 photos from Hollis Public Library.
“The story that was told to me was that this (photograph) is part of the tent revival... My grand(father)’s grandfather that was a preacher during that time,” Anna said. “So my great uncle had borrowed this, I guess with the intention of making a copy to show his mom ... and he just never returned it.”
On Dec. 8, 1980, it became the property of Bill Banowsky, who took the photograph to his brother’s home in the small town of Rhonesboro in east Texas, approximately 260 miles from Norman.
Anna said she recalls seeing it in her grandparents' guesthouse, separate from the main building on their farm.
“We think when they had the farm, it was over in the guesthouse, and no one thought anything of it because we had just all kinds of old pictures on it,” Anna said.
In the early 2010s, it was packed up and traveled about 100 miles to Garland, where it was later discovered.
“So it made its way kind of throughout Texas in the 39 years we’ve had it,” Anna said.
The Banowsky family thought it was confusing and out of character for the patriarch they'd known and loved, but Anna had another perspective.
“From my perspective, this is actually a bigger problem than I think a lot of people,” Anna said. “I think a lot of people (felt) like, ‘Oh, we’ve had this for 39 years, it’s fine, it’s whatever.’ Whereas I’m like, 'Okay, but that belongs to somebody.'”
Anna packed the photograph up for one more journey — about 200 miles back to OU and into Monnet Hall — to return it to the Western History Collections library.
“When she brought it in and told me the narrative, I was astounded,” said Todd Fuller, curator of the collection. “I thought ... well, that’s a long journey for this picture and the frame — and ended up not being nefarious in any way, it just evolved and happened.”
Despite the confusion around the photograph’s origins and the collections library's paper sticker on the frame, it turned out to be a copy.
Anna turned the framed photo over to a student worker at the library, who brought it to Fuller, who had it inspected by Jacquelyn Slater Reese, librarian of the collection and associate professor of bibliography.
After Slater Reese inspected it, she realized it was a copied print, Fuller said.
“I was delighted when Jackie (said,) 'Have Anna come back and get the photo — she can have it,'” Fuller said.
The Western History Collections library consists of four divisions: photographs, manuscripts, books and maps. The collection hosts thousands of donated and sought-after documents worth a “substantial amount of money,” Fuller said.
Had the original photograph been missing, Fuller said, someone from the collection would have contacted Bill Banowsky when his tenure as president ended and asked for it back.
The real story is far less scandalous.
On Dec. 8, 1980, then-President Bill Banowsky went to Monnet Hall and requested the photograph, titled “Grandma Lesly, Aunt Lena, little Margie,” to be copied. The standard procedure at the time was to take the original negative and develop it in the collections library's dark room to produce a print, Slater Reese said.
The print was then sent to a photo framer to be framed in the standard brown frame and labeled with a sticker on the back of the frame to provide the proper citation of the photograph. Additional wording on the sticker states that in order to recopy the copied print, Bill Banowsky was required to ask permission of the collections library before doing so.
As it turned out, the original negative never left Monnet Hall.
In fact, every original in the photograph division is a negative stowed away with information about the donation and the stories behind the photographs, Fuller said.
Fuller said issuing copies of photographs and other documents is a daily occurrence for the library.
The darkroom used in the '80s closed in the mid 2000s, and today if someone wants a copy of an original negative, Slater Reese and the library staff simply scan the negative on a flatbed scanner, she said.
However, the process is becoming even easier with new technology — there are now phone applications that can take a picture of a negative and convert it into a positive.
“People are welcome to photograph anything here for no charge,” Slater Reese said. “Photo negatives have been the one thing that has been a really tricky thing. If you take a picture of a negative, it's negative. Whereas if you take a picture and then convert it, it's really awesome. And then you don't need us to do this.”
The library still copies photograph prints, if asked, and charges a fee for the use of the software. The Banowsky photograph, which is an 8x10, would have cost $18 to be copied, Slater Reese said.
As for the story behind the photograph, it is mildly unknown, Fuller said.
All the information the collections library has of the donated originals is labeled on a manila folder holding the image. In the case of the Banowsky photograph, all that is known is the inscription:
“Hollis Public Library Collection. Mrs. Chester Harmon. Hollis, Okla. Lesley Church meeting at Cave Creek south of Vinson. ‘Grandma Lesly, Aunt Lena, little Margie.’”
It is currently in Anna’s possession until she decides what to do with it. She said she plans to ask her family members if anyone has an attachment to the image, and if so she will give it to them. Otherwise, she’ll keep it for herself.
“I’m also so curious about who these people are in the picture. We had family members that did this sort of thing, but that’s not them. So we don’t know who these people in the picture are,” Anna said. “I wonder what happened to them — what is their story, too, you know? Because there’s the story of the picture, but there’s also — there’s people in the picture.”
While the mystery of the photograph’s origins may never be uncovered, Anna said she’s happy to have her great uncle’s name cleared from such an odd charge.
“I’m very glad it’s not actually stolen, and I know the family members that I’ve been able to talk to are also really relieved because ... this (was) so not like him,” Anna said. “We’re all very glad that ... it’s not actually taken and lost for 39 years.”