Twisted Tale of Stolen Chagall Nears Ending

The New York Times Company

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After three decades, a stolen Chagall will emerge from an attic and return to its owners’ estate.CreditFederal Bureau of Investigation

A team of sophisticated art thieves with ties to Bulgarian organized crime bypassed a burglar alarm nearly three decades ago and slipped into a sprawling 16th-floor apartment in one of Manhattan’s most exclusive neighborhoods.

They took their time in the empty apartment on East 57th Street near Sutton Place, selecting with gloved hands more than a dozen paintings by Chagall, Renoir, Picasso, Léger, and Hopper, among others, along with antiquities from Peru and Costa Rica, jewelry and even rugs.

Investigators said at the time that the thieves might have been in the apartment over several days, and left as they had entered — without a trace. The elderly couple who had amassed the artworks over a lifetime of international travel were stunned to find their collection plundered when they returned from their annual two-month summer vacation in Aspen.

The crime has remained unsolved since it occurred in 1988; no arrests have been made, and none of the artworks have surfaced — until now.

On Thursday morning, federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., filed a complaint seeking authority to return one of the paintings, Marc Chagall’s 1911 “Othello and Desdemona,” to the estate of its late owners. The oil-on-canvas depicting Othello with a sword in his hand, gazing upon a reclining Desdemona, had languished for years in a Maryland attic.

The elderly couple, Ernest S. Heller and Rose Heller, are long dead. Their lawyer said the apartment near the East River was something of a salon where artists and musicians — including, in the 1960s, Chagall himself and composer Aaron Copland — would meet.

The artworks, which were valued at $750,000 at the time of the theft, would be worth millions in today’s art market.

The painting was discovered in part because an aging criminal, a terminally ill man who is 72 and who had been involved with Bulgarian organized crime, wanted to make a clean breast of things before he dies, according to Marc Hess of the F.B.I.’s Art Crime Team, the special agent who is investigating the case. The painting had been hidden in the criminal’s attic.

“One of the things he did say to me is that he was partially motivated by his imminent demise,” Mr. Hess said in a telephone interview. “He talked about meeting his maker and trying to clear his conscience and make things right before he dies.”

The complaint sketches the outlines of a tale worthy of a noir novel. It also deepens the mystery of the carefully executed heist, shrouding the identities of two of the players, in part because the Art Crime Team, based in Washington, D.C., is still investigating the theft and trying to find more of the stolen art, according to Mr. Hess, his supervisor and the prosecutor handling the case.

The document reveals that one of the thieves — who has a degree in fine arts and is identified only as Person 1 — had worked in the Hellers’ apartment building. Several people with knowledge of the case said he was the superintendent or the assistant superintendent. A few years after the theft he had been arrested and convicted on federal charges that he committed similar crimes: stealing artworks from other apartment buildings where he worked, according to the document.

The complaint tracks his ill-fated effort to sell the Chagall, complete with a no-honor-among-thieves falling-out he had with a co-conspirator.

Person 1 became frustrated in his own efforts to unload the painting, and in the late 1980s or early 1990s, he sought the assistance of the man who is now 72 years old, who was to serve as a fence and who planned to sell it through his Bulgarian organized crime connections.

The fence found a potential buyer. But then the man identified as Person 1 sought to cut him out of the deal. That’s when the fence stole the painting from Person 1 and stored it for years in the attic.

In about 2011, he tried to sell it to a gallery owner in Washington, D.C., according to the complaint. But the owner said he could not display the painting for sale without paperwork showing ownership or provenance, or a certificate from the Chagall committee, which controls the artist’s estate.

At that time, the gallery owner recognized the artwork as the same painting that had been brought to him in 1989 by an unidentified man, who also had no provenance or proof of ownership, and with whom the gallery owner also declined to do business.

Then, in January of last year, the 72-year-old man returned to the same gallery and again tried to sell the painting to the gallery owner, and the owner again refused, according to the complaint.

But this time, the gallery owner suggested that the man with the painting contact law enforcement. He did so, calling the F.B.I., and later that month, he turned the painting over to agents.

The complaint and the attorney for the Hellers’ estate, Alan Scott, say that the estate intends to sell the painting at auction if it is returned. The estate has agreed to repay the insurance company for the settlement and any related expenses, and donate the remainder of the proceeds to the residuary beneficiaries identified in the Hellers’ will: the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ colony that will receive 80 percent; and Columbia University and NYU Langone Medical Center, which will each receive 10 percent.

Mr. Heller, who was in the jewelry business and imported pearls, detailed the provenance of the Chagall in a 1990 oral history prepared by Lincoln Center. He said that he had inherited the painting from his father, Samuel Heller, who had purchased it directly from Chagall in Paris for $50 in 1913.

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