The FBI Has Cracked the 30-Year-Old Case of a Stolen Marc Chagall
The robbery of an octogenarian couple was likely an inside job.
Thirty years after it was stolen, an early Marc Chagall has been recovered by the FBI. The painting, titled Othello and Desdemona, belonged to retired jeweler and art collector Ernest “Pick” Heller and his wife Rose “Red” Heller, and was stolen from their New York apartment back in 1988, along with numerous other paintings, sculptures, and art objects including jewelry, carpets, silverware, and Steuben china.
“We often work on recoveries that are over 25 years old but this one is unique for the outstanding work performed by law enforcement 30 years after the theft,” Chris Marinello of Art Recovery, who represents the Hellers’ insurance company, told artnet News in an email. “The FBI and US Attorney’s Office could have easily dismissed this matter as ‘ancient history’ but they pursued it with precision and vigor.”
Ernest and Rose, then 85 and 88, had returned from their annual two-month trip to Aspen, Colorado, only to find their apartment had been robbed. They had an alarm system installed, but there was no sign of a break in.
Today, investigators believe the theft was committed by someone who worked in the building and had access to the security system. The culprit was, according to a statement, later “convicted in federal district court of interstate transportation of stolen property and mail fraud related to the theft and sale of other works of art from other apartment buildings.”
In addition to Chagall, the couple owned some 21 paintings and 12 sculptures in all, including works by August Renoir, Othon Friesz, Georges Rouault, Pablo Picasso, and Edward Hopper. At the time of the robbery, the couple’s stolen property was collectively valued at an estimated $600,000. Adjusting for inflation, that would be $1.3 million today.
“It was a lifetime of collecting,” Ernest told UPI at the time of the crime. “I liked them all, but the Chagall was a very interesting one because it was a 1911 painting.” He expressed his doubts that his stolen valuables would ever be recovered. To date, Othello and Desdemona is the only piece from the heist to have been found; 13 other paintings remain missing.
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, after the first party tried to cut the second out of the deal—they later 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, and now 72-years-old, terminally ill, and looking to clear his conscience, Person 2 finally contacted the FBI, who took possession of the painting in January 2017.
Today’s filing is a civil forfeiture, which allows the government to seize stolen property without starting criminal proceedings against a suspected guilty party. “That doesn’t mean that we aren’t going to prosecute someone later,” noted Zia Faruqui, the prosecutor on the case, in a phone call with artnet News.
Othello and Desdemona had been appraised at Sotheby’s for $50,000–65,000 in 1974. It was originally purchased by Ernest’s father Samuel Heller for just $50 in 1913. A student at Ècole Julien Art School in Paris, Samuel was friends with Fernand Léger, who likely introduced him to Chagall.
After seizing the painting, the FBI discovered a label on the back, in German, that identified “Mr. + Mrs. E.S. Heller, New York” as the “besitzer,” the German word for owner. The couple had lent the piece to a Chagall exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zurich in Geneva, Switzerland in 1967—and even rebuffed an offer from a local gallery interested in buying it.
“We were fairly luckily because the tag from Zurich had a space for owners,” FBI case agent Marc Hess admitted to artnet News. From there, investigators were able to track down news articles about the theft, and contact Alan Scott, the lawyer for the Hellers’ estate, who confirmed that the painting was their stolen property.
“Both of the Hellers were philanthropic and highly active in the NYC arts scene in the mid-20th century,” Scott told artnet News. Ernest Heller died in 1998 at 95, and Rose Heller in 2003 at 105.
They had nieces and nephews, but their will primarily benefitted the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, a contemporary art residency. The proceeds of the painting’s sale will be split between MacDowell (80 percent) and New York’s Columbia University and NYU Medical Center (10 percent each).
“Normally, the insurance company claims the entire proceeds in cases like this, but given that the money would be going to charity, the company agreed to take just their pay-out amount and nothing more,” said Marinello. He said the Hellers had received $100,000 from their insurance policy for the stolen painting.
Today, according to the artnet Price Database, Chagall’s work routinely sells for millions at auction. His record is $28.45 million for Les Amoureux, a 1928 canvas of a man and women embracing. The painting, sold in November at Sotheby’s New York, is said to depict the artist’s first wife and great love, Bella Rosenfeld.
Othello and Desdemona, however, is unlikely to reach similar heights. “It’s not a particularly attractive painting, nor from the photograph does it appear to be in particularly good condition,” art adviser Todd Levin told artnet News. “Similar pieces have sold in the relatively recent past, and I think they’d be lucky to get $600,000 today, including buyer’s premium.”
“A sensible auction estimate would be $300,000–500,000, and it’s very possible that the painting might not sell at all,” he added. “This is not an important painting in the artists’ output by subject matter, scale, period, or in any other way.” Levin noted that the fact that the work had been missing for so many years would probably only diminish its value, due to the likelihood that the painting was improperly stored.
Marinello cited a higher figure. “We have been given preliminary estimates of around $700,000–900,000,” he said. “The provenance is impeccable. The victim’s father purchased the painting from Chagall himself. There is a significant exhibition history as well.”
Regardless of the painting’s monetary value, its recovery after three decades remains a major accomplishment. “I was just blown away that 30 years after a crime occurred in New York that FBI agents were looking for this property in DC and doing the hard work to track down who the proper owners were and get it back to them,” said Faruqui. “Now it’s going to a charity, and it speaks really highly of the bureau. It’s a real feel good story!”
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