Stolen Art Returned

Chagall Oil Painting Recovered Nearly 30 Years After Heist

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Nearly 30 years after an elderly New York couple’s 1911 painting by Marc Chagall was stolen from their Manhattan home, the modernist oil-on-canvas work is being returned to the family’s estate.

The painting, entitled Othello and Desdemona, was recovered last year after a Maryland man contacted the FBI’s Washington Field Office. The man’s repeated efforts to consign the painting had been rebuffed by a Washington, D.C., gallery owner who was suspicious about the lack of paperwork supporting the painting’s authenticity and provenance. The gallery owner suggested the man call law enforcement, which is how it became an FBI investigation.

“We took the case from there,” said Special Agent Marc Hess, one of a handful of FBI investigators on the Bureau’s specialized Art Crime Team. Hess said the investigation led to the man’s home in Maryland, where he had stored the painting in his attic for years in a custom box he crafted out of a door jamb and plywood. Hand-scrawled on the top of box were the words “Misc. High School artwork.”

According to court documents, the Maryland man had obtained the painting in the late 1980s or early 1990s from the man who stole the Chagall in New York in 1988. The thief, it turned out, was a worker in the Upper East Side building where Ernest and Rose Heller lived in an apartment surrounded by paintings and sculptures by renowned artists like Renoir, Picasso, Hopper, and Chagall. Several other works of art also disappeared in the heist.

“It was an inside job,” Hess said. “A person who had regular access to the building was stealing from apartments while the tenants were away.”

Shortly afterward, the thief met with the Maryland man in Virginia to try to sell the painting, court documents show. The Maryland man found a potential buyer, but the deal collapsed when he learned he wasn’t going to receive a cut of the proceeds. The Maryland man kept possession of the painting and stashed it in his attic for years. He brought it out in 2011—and again in January 2017—in his fruitless appeals to the D.C. gallery owner to exhibit and try to sell the stolen art.

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