Investigators Recover Stolen US-German Expressionist Art

MANHATTAN (CN) — More than a decade after the man who stole the art went to jail, Italian art crime investigators recovered five emblematic works by German-born American abstract expressionist painter Hans Hofmann.

An untitled Hans Hofmann painting. Image courtesy of Art Recovery International.

After the paintings were last seen in 2003 at the now-defunct storage company Cirkers in Manhattan, the New York City Police Department determined the heist was an inside job. Cirkers’ longtime caretaker John Rett pleaded guilty a year later to criminal possession of stolen property.

Rett spent only 10 days in prison, however, and the valuable paintings he looted would not be recovered for another 13 years.

Christopher Marinello, who runs the Venice-based Art Recovery International, announced this week that his firm has recovered five of the Hofmann works.

“I’ve seen this all before: a classic case all too often repeated of insider theft on a grand scale,” Marinello said in a statement.

With no search warrant ever executed on Rett’s residence, Marinello said, the investigation turned a corner last year when Hofmann’s “The Artist” was consigned for sale at Heritage Auctions.

After it failed to sell, the work was consigned this year to Swann Auction Galleries. Art Recovery International said an unspecified consignor there came forward with that work and four other ones.

“Thieves take advantage of the so-called legitimate distribution network for stolen artwork and the lack of interest in serious due diligence by the art trade,” Marinello said. “I’ve been beating this drum for years and still see a reluctance by the trade to pay the cost of proper due diligence out of fear that it will get in the way of earning a profit.”

Swann Galleries did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Representatives for Crozier Fine Arts emphasized in an email that the theft at the Cirkers Manhattan facility occurred many years before Crozier acquired the Brooklyn portion of the Cirkers business in 2017.

Marinello urged galleries to exercise caution with works of suspect provenance.

“Due diligence needs to be performed not only on the artwork being offered but on employees handling fine art,” he said. “Rett had an arrest record dating back to 1975 for petty larceny prior to his employment by Cirkers.”

Art Recovery International estimated the value of the returned works at more than $500,000, and urged the public to pass on any information about a sixth Hofmann painting titled “Arcanum” that is still at large to Marinello.

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