United States Files Complaint Seeking Forfeiture of Oil Painting Recovered by FBI Nearly 30 Years After Its Theft in New York
Government Seeks to Return 1911 Painting by Marc Chagall to Estate of Collectors Who Rightfully Owned It
WASHINGTON – The United States has filed a civil complaint seeking the forfeiture of an oil painting by Marc Chagall that was recovered by the FBI decades after it was stolen from collectors in New York. The United States intends to return the artwork to its rightful owners.
The announcement was made by U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Jessie K. Liu and Nancy McNamara, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office.
The artwork, “Othello and Desdemona,” is an oil painting on canvas created by Chagall in 1911, in the early stages of his career. It depicts a male, Othello, in the left foreground holding a sword in his hand and looking at a female figure, Desdemona, lying on a bed in the right background. It now is in the possession of the FBI and is currently being held at an FBI facility in Washington, D.C. This piece was previously displayed at an art gallery in Switzerland in the 1960s.
The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and seeks forfeiture of the painting on the basis that it represents the proceeds of the interstate transportation of stolen property and possession of stolen goods.
“For nearly 30 years, this magnificent painting was in the control of people who had no legal right to it,” said U.S. Attorney Liu. “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.”
“As the FBI returns this painting to the estate of its proper owners, we do so with the purpose of preserving history,” said Assistant Director in Charge McNamara. “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.”
According to the complaint, the painting had been rightfully owned by Ernest and Rose Heller, art collectors who lived in New York. The Hellers, who are now deceased, had amassed a collection of artwork from their travels in Europe and other parts of the world. By 1988, they had collected more than 20 paintings and 12 sculptures, which they kept in their apartment.
In August of 1988, they came home to their apartment and discovered that the painting, along with other artwork and sculptures, had been stolen. The piece by Chagall had a label indicating that its owners were “Mr. + Mrs. E.S. Heller, New York.” The property was insured by an insurance company, which paid the Hellers a lump sum following the theft.
Following the burglary, Interpol listed the Chagall painting as a stolen artwork. An FBI investigation revealed that the painting was stolen from the apartment by an individual who worked in the building. That individual was convicted in a federal district court of interstate transportation of stolen property and mail fraud related to the theft and sale of other works of art stolen from other apartment buildings. Prior to the arrest of this individual, he attempted to sell the painting to a third party. That third party took the painting from the suspected thief in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
After that, this third party attempted to consign the painting to an art gallery in Washington, D.C., but without proof of ownership, the gallery refused to accept the painting. The gallery suggested that the individual contact law enforcement, which resulted in the FBI obtaining custody of the painting.
Upon completion of the forfeiture proceedings, the painting will be returned to the Rose Heller estate. At that time, and in consultation with the insurer’s representative, Art Recovery International, the painting will be sold at auction. The Heller estate will repay the insurance company for their disbursement from the proceeds of the sale, pay any related legal expenses, and donate the remainder of the sale proceeds to the estate’s beneficiaries: the McDowell Colony, a haven for artists in New Hampshire (80%), Columbia University (10%), and NYU Medical Center (10%), all 501(c)(3) tax-exempt non-profit corporations.
In a news article that appeared days after the theft, Ernest Heller was quoted as saying that he especially liked the Chagall. “It’s all in the hands of the police,” Mr. Heller said at the time. “Sometimes they’re (stolen paintings) returned but I doubt it.”
Christopher A. Marinello, CEO of Art Recovery International, the firm that is working with the insurer, issued a statement saying, “We are extremely grateful to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for doggedly pursuing this case 30 years after the theft. 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.”
The lawsuit is captioned United States v. One Oil Painting Entitled Othello and Desdemona by Marc Chagall. The claims made in the complaint are only allegations and do not constitute a determination of liability.
This case is being investigated by the FBI’s Washington Field Office. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Zia M. Faruqui, Brian P. Hudak, and Anthony Scarpelli, Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Welsh, and Paralegal Specialist Toni Anne Donato, all from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, are representing the government.