FBI tracks down Marc Chagall painting stolen 30 years ago

April 12 (UPI) — The FBI is returning an expressionist painting by Russian artist Marc Chagall to a New York couple’s family 30 years after it was stolen from their apartment.

Agents seized the 1911 painting, titled Othello and Desdemona, from a Maryland man who said he bought it from the man suspected of stealing it from the home of Ernest Heller and Rose Heller in 1988. The Hellers, now dead, were art collectors who had amassed a collection of more than 20 paintings and 12 sculptures in their New York City apartment.

The Chagall painting was one of several artworks stolen from the Heller apartment. The estimated value of the paintings, jewelry, sculptures, carpets and china stolen at the time was $600,000 — about $1.3 million today.

Ernest Heller told UPI in 1988 that in addition to the Chagall, paintings by Auguste Renoir and Georges Rouault were stolen.

“I liked the Chagall. I liked them all, but the Chagall was a very interesting one because it was a 1911 painting,” he said.

Detectives initially couldn’t determine how the thief entered the Heller apartment while they were on their annual two-month vacation to Aspen, Colo.

“It’s all in the hands of the police,” Heller said in 1988. “Sometimes they’re (stolen paintings) returned but I doubt it.”

The Hellers’ security system had not been activated by the break-in and investigators determined the thief was a man who worked in the building. The FBI said he sold the Chagall painting to the Maryland man in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

The Department of Justice said the Maryland attempted to sell the painting twice — in 2010 and 2017 — to a gallery in Washington, D.C., but was unable to do so because he couldn’t prove ownership. The gallery suggested the man contact law enforcement, which then seized the painting.

“For nearly 30 years, this magnificent painting was in the control of people who had no legal right to it,” said Jessie K. Liu, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. “It was stolen from New York collectors who had owned it since the 1920s, and they never saw it again. Now, thanks to the tireless efforts of the FBI, it has been located and will be returned to the collectors’ estate. This case shows that law enforcement will never stop its dogged pursuit of justice, and will do all it can to recover stolen treasures.”

The FBI intends to put the Chagall painting up for auction, the proceeds of which will first go to repay an insurance company that reimbursed the Hellers after the theft. Any remaining funds will go to the Rose Heller estate, which stipulates the money would be distributed to charitable organizations.

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

Because of the statute of limitations, neither the suspected thief of the painting, nor the Maryland man he sold it to are expected to face charges. The suspect was convicted of interstate transport of stolen property and mail fraud related to the theft and sale of other works of art stolen from multiple apartment buildings.

The Department of Justice withheld both men’s names due to the ongoing investigation into the whereabouts of the rest of the Hellers’ property.

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