Feds Untangle 30-Year Mystery of Chagall Heist

“Othello and Desdemona,” by Marc Chagall in 1911

WASHINGTON (CN) – Thirty years after a Marc Chagall oil painting disappeared from the apartment of two New York City collectors, a federal forfeiture action filed Thursday shows that the piece is returning to its rightful owners.

With the names of sellers and art galleries involved in the case redacted, the complaint reveals that “Othello and Desdemona” (1911) has been in an FBI storage facility in Washington, D.C., since Jan. 20, 2017.

The piece was one of several from the collection of Ernest and Rose Heller that was stolen from the couple’s apartment in August 1988.

Though both of the Hellers are now dead, the complaint says their estate has come forward as the rightful owner. It intends to auction the piece and split the proceeds between three charities and the unnamed insurance company that paid the Hellers a lump sum following the theft.

Signed by an FBI agent and a special assistant U.S. attorney, Thursday’s complaint notes that the individual who committed the theft in 1988 has been convicted previously in federal court of interstate transportation of stolen property and mail fraud involving unrelated stolen works of art.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said the government did not release his name because the investigation is ongoing.

The thief had access to the Hellers because he worked in their apartment building, and sometime in the early 2000s he reported that the Chagall had been stolen from him, according to the complaint.

For a number of years, the filing explains, the Hellers’ Chagall has been kept in the attic, stored in a homemade wooden box, of a Maryland man described only as Person 2.

Authorities they thief knew that the artwork was stolen because the man who stole it specifically sought to rely on Person 2’s Bulgarian organized crime connections when he sought help selling it in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

Person 2 held onto the painting, according to the complaint, after he learned that the thief was trying to cut him out of the sale Person 2 had arranged.

In 2011, the complaint continues, a third person surfaced with the painting, asking a gallery in Washington, D.C., to consign it.

Because this person did not have any official documentation, however, the gallery owner turned down the deal. Authorities say the owner remembered that “an unidentified male” had also tried to consign the same work in 1989.

The gallery owner was approached about selling the painting again in January 2017, this time by Person 2, according to the complaint.

Authorities say that the galley owner suggested that Person 2 contact law enforcement, and that the FBI took the painting from Person 2 when this contact occurred.

A nonprofit called the McDowell Colony will recover the bulk of the proceeds from the sale of the painting by Hellers’ estate, according to the complaint.

Columbia University and the NYU Medical Center will split the remaining 20 percent.

“As the FBI returns this painting to the estate of its proper owners, we do so with the purpose of preserving history,” Nancy McNamara, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, said in a statement Thursday. “This piece of artwork is of significance not just for its monetary value, but for its place in the world of art and culture. the FBI continues to commit investigative resources to recover cultural property.”

The insurer for the Hellers worked on the case with Art Recovery International. “We are extremely grateful to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for doggedly pursuing this case 30 years after the theft,” Art Recovery’s Christopher Marinello said in a statement. “This sends a resounding message to art thieves everywhere that in the USA, the passage of time will not defeat the original owner’s right to bring a claim in recovery.”

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