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.