FBI recovers stolen Chagall 30 years after theft

A Chagall oil painting that was stolen in a heist of valuables from the apartment of a New York couple in 1988 has been recovered by the FBI. Ernest and Rose Heller were 85 and 88 years old respectively when they returned to their Manhattan apartment after an Aspen vacation to find it had been burgled. Missing along with the Chagall were jewelry, china, silver and 13 other paintings from their small but significant collection by artists including Renoir, Hopper and Picasso. The building’s security system had remained silent the entire time.

Because of security having been neutralized, authorities at the time suspected it was an inside job. One man who worked there and had access to the building’s security system would later be convicted on federal charges of moving stolen goods across state lines. Some of the counts related to the Heller theft, others to art stolen from other New York homes, so it seems the Chagall fell into the hands of a whole theft ring with multi-state operation.

Even with the insider arrested and convicted, none of the loot from the Heller apartment was recovered. Ernest was quoted in the press at the time of the theft saying that he didn’t think he’d ever see any of the pieces from “a lifetime of collecting” again. Sadly, he was right. He and his wife passed away many years ago, leaving their possessions almost entirely to charity.

The FBI’s Art Crime Team tracked down the painting with the help of a gallery in Washington, DC. According to a complaint filed today in US District Court and titled United States v. One Oil Painting Entitled Othello and Desdemona by Marc Chagall for the District of Columbia, “Person 1” approached “Person 2” in the late 1980s or early ’90s, for help selling the stolen Chagall to persons involved with Bulgarian organized crime. The deal fell through, and the first party accused the second, who wound up with the painting, of stealing the work. (Because of the ongoing investigation into the other paintings whereabouts, the FBI is not revealing the names of any of the parties involved.)

Person 2 brought the painting to the DC gallery in 2011, and again in 2017. An unidentified third party had previously brought the painting to the gallery back in 1989. All three times, the dealer said they could not help sell the piece without proof of ownership and provenance. Encouraged by the gallery, Person 2 finally contacted the FBI, who took possession of the painting in January 2017.

Because the insurance company paid out for the stolen objects, it is technically the owner of the painting, and would be even if the Hellers were alive. In this case it has agreed to waive its legitimate ownership claim and the painting will be sold auction to benefit the charities in the Hellers’ will.

Chagall paintings can go for dizzying sums these days. The most recent windfall went to the former owners of Les Amoureux, which sold at Sotheby’s in New York last November for a record $28.45 million. Experts are doubtful that this piece would be one of the artist’s multi-million dollar sellers, however. The image is a little muddy, not particularly appealing and its many decades on the lam have not done its condition any favors. A similar work recently sold for $600,000, so that’s what it’s been appraised at. On the other hand, Ernest Heller was intrigued by its early date — it was painted in 1911 — and his own father bought it in Paris just two years after it was made for $50, likely from Chagall himself. Also its recent history might make it more desirable because heist stories are always juicy.

9 thoughts on “FBI recovers stolen Chagall 30 years after theft

  1. Had they given it as a loan to an important New York based museum in 1985, I am sure, they could almost certainly sell it now for -at least- double the price.

    This stuff doesn’t gain value by hanging it to your closets – That’s why. Those multi-state operations could have been arranged much more elegantly, and -by the way- legally 😎

  2. So, they only really begin to gain value when they come out of the closet?

    Anyway, muddy colours or not, I would make space for it 🙂

  3. I don’t suppose there is any doubt about both the artist and the date, is there? There are many 1911 Chagall paintings in public and private collections around the world, and they don’t look like this Othello and Desdemona. The colours are wrong, the lines not sharp enough and the content seems unusual for pre-WW1 Chagall.

    But the story does show the remarkable story of stolen art being located and returned to the rightful owners!

  4. Way back in the late 1970’s, a close friend of mine worked in a small private gallery that owned some Chagall drawings. I happened to come by on a day that the gallery was going thru the collection. I was allowed to hold a few of the drawings. Beautiful, fascinating. Exciting.

  5. I guess I’ll never understand why paintings like these are considered art; it’s ugly and weird. I would certainly never hang one in my house, or give it a second glance in an art gallery.

  6. Well, Brea, I suppose it is because art is art, independently of our liking. I always think it is like supporting football teams or choosing cars, homes and clothes – we all have our own preferences that others think are quite mad 😉

  7. Brea, I see you still possess the capacity for independent thought. This probably makes you part of an endangered subspecies.

    Next I suppose you’ll be telling us that Jacob Epstein’s grotesqueries are not art fit to be compared to the David?

    Dear me, how can a dealer make a living if buyers examine art critically according to some bourgeois criteria of their own instead of simply doing as they are told?

    What would the Great Masters say if they could see the rubbish that the Emperor’s subjects all pretend is art these days?

  8. “Dark and muddy” fits the subject matter. Yes, the painting is haunting and threatening, somewhat confused and confusing, not beautiful, not particularly pleasant to look at, at least not at first.

    But then if one recollects and keeps in mind the story of Othello and Desdemona and their characters … well, then, this painting might turn out to be a most-accurate rendition, awesome, awful, terrible, awe-inspiring.

    Anyway, it strikes me as something ludicrous—like a dog growling at a Shakespeare play—to pass judgment on a work of a great artist without having looked at it and thought about it carefully, many times, over a long time.

  9. Well, A.F.M., for this to be a “dog growling” scenario the painting in question would have to be slightly approximate in terms of artistic worth as the said “Othello”, wouldn’t it?

    This painting will never be any more that it appears to be: rubbish. The fact that a century of hype by gallery-owners, their paid hucksters and assorted social parasites has convinced some people that rubbish is art will not make it so.

    Such shysters of course know that most people crave acceptance and approval above all else and if they can manipulate enough people in feeling “unsophisticated” or “bourgeois” for not being able to see the Emperors amazing technicolor dreamcoat, then the rest will just shut up and go along. The most suggestible will actually begin to ask themselves if there REALLY IS something in this muck they can’t see! Hilarious and I’m sure the jackals laugh all the way to the bank about it.

    Ask Sister Wendy if you’re not sure. Enough of this farce.

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