31 Mar 2012

$1M worth of stolen art recovered 24 years after theft

$1M worth of stolen art recovered 24 years after theft Image

$1M worth of stolen art recovered 24 years after theft

Four contemporary paintings stolen in 1988 in a brazen Fourth of July theft from a New York City gallery have been recovered in Cologne, Germany 24 years after the crime.

The theft had been reported to the New York City Police Department, FBI, and Interpol and registered with the International Foundation for Art Research and the Art Loss Register (‘ALR’) who today announced the recovery of artworks by Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Jean Dubuffet and Fernand Leger. The recovery of these works brings a substantial conclusion to an extraordinary case which spanned over two decades, and involved five law enforcement agencies.

Published accounts at the time of the theft stated that an unidentified intruder had picked the locks of the Solomon Gallery on Madison Avenue and quickly made off with six valuable works on display.

Recovered: Untitled Franz Kline

The oil on canvas by Karel Appel, was the first work to resurface and was recovered in 2003 when a German art dealer searched the ALR Database through his lawyer in Stuttgart, Germany. The dealer claimed to have purchased five of the six stolen works on a buying trip in New York but the lawyer could produce no documentation of the sale and refused to divulge the name of his client to authorities. A German public prosecutor issued a warrant for aiding and abetting the sale of stolen goods but a police raid of the lawyer’s home and office failed to uncover the other pictures. According to law enforcement, all references to the dealer had been removed from the firm’s case files and in a bizarre series of events, one law firm partner was charged with threatening a police officer involved in the raid.

The sudden focus on the law firm meant the lawyer could no longer represent the art dealer who quickly obtained new counsel. Hiding behind this second lawyer, a criminal specialist from Munich, the German dealer once again refused to cooperate and the case went cold.

Recovered: Robert Motherwell FigurationOver the course of the next nine years, no attempts were made to contact the ALR or authorities over the stolen pictures. Finally, in 2012 the daughter of the now deceased dealer contacted the Dedalus Foundation in New York to authenticate the stolen Motherwell. The daughter, a fine art professional, had also approached a local auction house but was quickly referred back to the ALR. The ALR Recovery Team immediately flew to Cologne where they met with police authorities and positively identified the works as the paintings stolen in 1988.

The ALR team then negotiated the return of the four paintings with the lawyer for the family. “At the Art Loss Register, we’re going to make life difficult for those who attempt to sell stolen art. You can hide behind lawyers and look for loopholes in civil law jurisdictions, but eventually you’re going to have to deal with some very uncomfortable issues. The problem will not simply disappear with the passage of time. Leaving stolen artworks to the next generation is a losing proposition.”

Recovered: Effigie Jean DubuffetThe ALR credits authorities in the US and Germany for their strong support: “International cooperation among law enforcement is alive and well when it comes to recovering stolen art. The determination and tenacity of Special Agent Meredith A. Savona of the FBI Art Crime Team, NYPD Detective Mark Fishstein and the Cologne Police Department were critical in bringing these pictures home.”

The paintings are now owned by the gallery’s insurer who is in discussions with the former gallery’s owners about returning the pictures to their collection.

Despite this auspicious ending one final work remains unrecovered. Mulberry Centre by Franz Kline was stolen along with the five other works in 1988 but appears to have been separated from the others. The ALR is appealing for information on the missing work, details of which can be found below.

Missing: Mulberry Center Franz Kline