Missing for 30 years after heist, painting is headed to auction and could benefit NH's MacDowell ColonyBy SPENCER S. HSU
The Washington Post April 20. 2018 7:19PM
A Marc Chagall painting stolen in a New York City art heist more than 30 years ago and expected to fetch several hundred thousand dollars at auction could end up benefiting a famous New Hampshire artist colony.
The theft of "Othello and Desdemona" was "an inside job" by a temporary employee who had access to the apartment building in Manhattan's stately Sutton Place neighborhood when the owners were on vacation, FBI art crimes unit and Washington Field Office Special Agent Marc Hess said.
A Maryland associate of the thief who acquired the work after a dispute tried to sell it last year - still labeled with the names of its true owners, "Mr. + Mrs. E.S. Heller, New York." A Washington art gallery owner balked, however, because the piece lacked documents proving ownership and referred the would-be seller to the FBI, prosecutors said in a court filing this month.
The filing asks a court to approve returning the work to the Hellers' estate, which intends to sell it at auction to benefit charities and refund the insurance carrier's payment - estimated at about $100,000 at the time.
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At the time of the heist, owners Ernest and Rose Heller were very involved with the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, one of the country's leading artist retreats.
The MacDowell Colony offers creative individuals quiet cottages and a rural setting to work on their projects. Composers such as Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland are among thousands of notable artists who have had residencies there. Author Thornton Wilder wrote much of "Our Town" while in residence at MacDowell.
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A feud between the thief and a middleman with ties to Bulgarian mobsters eventually led to the recovery of the 13-inch by 16-inch oil painting, one of 14 works stolen in the 1988 heist, the FBI and federal prosecutors said.
Because the investigation and efforts to recover the other 13 paintings continue, the suspects are not identified in the court filing, which suggests at least one is cooperating in the case.
Both suspects are now in their 70s and may be motivated by "coming to your end times and wanting to set the record straight," Hess said. The cooperation is "not a (deathbed) confession" Hess said, but may be the associate's attempt to even the score with a thief he believed double-crossed him on a promised fee to find a buyer for the stolen Chagall through "connections with Bulgarian organized crime," as court papers describe the criminal network.
"I would say old rivalries die hard, and it's never too late to get your revenge," Hess said.
The building employee was convicted in federal court in Manhattan in connection with other art thefts from residences on charges of interstate transport of stolen property and mail fraud, court filings state without providing more details.
The employee approached the associate in the late 1980s or early 1990s, when the associate then lived in Virginia.
The two argued over the associate's fee, setting off a decades-long grudge and the attempt last year to sell the painting on his own, according to the saga in the court filings.
The associate by then was in Maryland and had stashed the Chagall for years in a specially made wooden crate before approaching the gallery in Washington.
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None of the other items stolen from the Hellers have been found, but "of all the works that could have been recovered, this is the one that would have pleased them the most," said Alan Scott, the Madison Avenue attorney who handled Ernest "Pick" Heller's estate and is the executor for Rose "Red" Heller.
Ernest Heller was a jeweler and pearl importer who died in 1998 at 95 after a lifetime of expanding his inherited collection of paintings, jewelry, sculptures, silverware and carpets. Rose Heller died at 105 in 2003.
"They were the quintessential old married couple," recalled Scott, who met the couple in the late 1980s before the theft, "They told it like it is to each other. And they got along well with everyone, particularly Red .... and they had a very active social life."
Cheryl Young, the executive director of the MacDowell Colony says she remembers the Hellers well.
"I knew Red better than I knew Pick because Red was on MacDowell's board. I think Pick was short for Pickles, which tells you something about their sense of humor.
"Red was a fantastic, no nonsense but loving person," says Young. "She was always thinking about what could help artists. She had the nicest way of being direct. No fluff."
In a 1988 article reporting the $600,000 theft of all the items, Ernest Heller said he prized most "Othello and Desdemona, " one of Chagall's early Paris works, depicting the jealous title character from William Shakespeare's play holding a sword in a threatening pose over his doomed wife.
"I liked them all, but the Chagall was a very interesting one because it was a 1911 painting," Heller said.
Heller was about 8 and living in Paris when his father, a jeweler named Samuel Heller, bought the painting from Chagall, who was one of several artists in his family's social circle, said Scott.
It remained in the family and part of the collection that came to fill the Hellers' New York prewar three-bedroom apartment, along with works by French painters Pierre-Auguste Renoir, George Rouault and Fernand Leger, the Italian Amadeo Modigliani and the American Edward Hopper. The Hellers also acquired Asian and pre-Columbian pottery.
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Chagall, a Russian-French painter and Modernist pioneer, became a preeminent Jewish artist of the 20th century but was little known in 1911, having arrived in Paris just the year before.
Chagall thought enough of "Othello and Desdemona" that he suggested the Hellers offer a Zurich art museum a chance to include it in a 1967 retrospective of his work. It was exhibited, and that June, Heller politely rebuffed a Basel gallery owner who asked whether the painting was for sale.
"Under the circumstances we would not like to part with it," Heller wrote, citing its "great sentimental value" after almost 50 years in his family, according to correspondence kept by Art Recovery International, a private firm employed by the Hellers' insurance company that recovers stolen and looted art.
The Hellers were longtime art and music patrons. Ernest Heller, who graduated from Princeton University at age 19 and joined the family jewelry business importing Mikimoto pearls before retiring in 1975, learned Chinese and became a trustee of the New York City Center, a forerunner of the Lincoln Center, according to his university alumni death notice.
Rose Heller, served on the boards of several U.S. contemporary music organizations, supporting festivals in Aspen, Colo., and Tanglewood in Massachusetts, and raised more than $1 million for the MacDowell Colony, which has supported more than 7,700 artists in residence since 1907 including Aaron Copland, James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein and Alice Walker.
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Art investigators said it is not unusual for thieves to try to sell a painting over the span of many years, whether to an established business or through a formal but illegal network or ring.
In the case of the Chagall piece, various sales approaches by the Maryland associate failed before he finally called the FBI asking if there was a reward out for the stolen painting, said Hess and Tim Carpenter, who oversees field programs for the FBI art crimes unit that has about 150 pending cases.
Scott said bringing the Chagall to auction could take some time.
"I don't really know how long the forfeiture will take. The FBI seized it and they have to get the court to agree that it is indeed stolen artwork and therefore subject to forfeiture," said Scott.
After that, the piece will have to be submitted to the Chagall Committee in France for authentication. Once verified, the piece will be returned to Scott and auctioned.
"The money will be used for fellowships for the MacDowell residency program which includes visual arts, music as well as all the other artistic disciplines."
When asked about what the couple might think about the final chapter of their stolen art work, Young replied, "They would be over the moon. And she would probably say to the agent, 'Good going, kid!'"
Writer Lisa Brown contributed to this report for the Sunday News.