Apr 18, 2011
The more Joseph Bellows tells his story, the more it gets compared to the movie “The Thomas Crown Affair.” His may be the less Hollywood version, but it involved more intrigue than the La Jolla art dealer is used to in his daily life running a gallery.
“I’m not involved too much in international theft and espionage so this was the most exciting thing that’s happened to me in … at least a couple of weeks,” said Bellows.
It all started with an email in broken English. The sender claimed to be in possession of a rare 1925 photograph called “The Wave” by the famous Czech photographer Frantisek Drtikol. He wanted to sell the avant garde nude, which is valued at roughly a half a million dollars.
Bellows was immediately interested.
“The idea of being able to handle and or own or live with this print for any length of time was exciting to me,” he said.
Bellows spent the following weeks trying to learn more about the photograph’s provenance, or history of ownership. The seller said that Drtikol gave it to his grandfather, who was a tailor, as trade for services. Bellows admits it was a great story.
“And you know, that’s the kind of provenance you want. If this were a legitimate piece and it had been handed down through the family and acquired in trade for a suit that the grandfather made for Drtikol, it’s all very interesting and makes for a wonderful provenance.”
Sounds like a provenance ripped from “Antiques Roadshow” doesn’t it?
Too bad it was all a lie. That’s not where the seller got the photograph. Instead, he or his accomplices stole it off the wall of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague. It was cut out of its frame while the museum was open to the public.
After a month and a half of negotiating with the mysterious seller, Bellows read about the theft in a Prague newspaper.
“Which was a shock and really too much of a coincidence since I knew that this photograph was coming out of Prague,” he recalled.
Bellows called Chris Marinello, an attorney working with a database of stolen art work from around the world. He confirmed the theft of “The Wave” and agreed to assist the Museum on a pro-bono basis.
Marinello said there are some unusual facets to this particular case.
“What was very strange was Joseph was actually contacted in January about this piece before it was stolen,” said Marinello. “Which leads us to believe that it was possibly stolen to order, or the criminal was making sure that he would be able to sell this thing before he swiped it.”
Marinello said he often gets asked if artworks are ever stolen to order and the answer is generally no. It’s more common that a work will be stolen by a thief or thieves who then don’t know what to do with it. In this case, the thief tried to establish a buyer prior to the theft.
This is where the story gets more intriguing. Marinello asked Bellows to stall the thief by continuing their correspondence. Bellows kept up the charade, and assured Marinello he wasn’t afraid.
“Because I had more correspondence with him than anyone, he didn’t come off to me as being a big time crook or someone who would threaten my life to get the goods back,” said Bellows.
Once he learned the photograph was stolen from the museum, Bellows made it his mission to get it back to Prague. He convinced the thief to send the photograph to him in New York, where he claimed to have a very interested buyer who was a prominent collector. He told the thief they wanted to examine the photograph for quality and authenticity before making the purchase.
A couple of days later a FedEx box arrived at Bellows’ New York hotel with Drtikol’s “The Wave” inside, still in excellent condition.
Bellows sent the print to Marinello, who worked with Prague police to get it back to the museum.
“This case was likely the fastest recovery I’ve ever worked on… and that’s 20 years of art recovery,” Marinello said.
But what of the thief? The authorities and Bellows had one more card to play. The thief still had the photograph’s original mount. When he sent the photograph, the thief carefully removed it from the original mount, telling Bellows it was necessary in order to make it fit in the FedEx box. Having the mount was important to secure the piece in its original form. Bellows sent an email asking to meet and exchange the mount and payment for “The Wave.”
In the meantime, the Czech media were tipped off that “The Wave” had been recovered. Marinello and the Prague police asked if the story could be held for a couple of days to buy them time to get the original mount and possibly nab the thief.
“This journalist decided he was going to get a scoop and published something before anyone was ready,” according to Marinello.
After the story was published in the Czech media, all emails to Bellows stopped.
The Prague police are still searching for the thief or thieves. They are following a number of leads. Bellows has given the police all the email exchanges between him and the seller, which have IP addresses attached to them.
In the meantime, Bellows has a great yarn.
He says he doesn’t feel like a hero, though he’s been called one since recovering the photograph. He says he was just doing the right thing and jokes he’s not looking for any reward.
“You know I wasn’t looking for the keys to the city at that point but it would be nice to have a parade in Prague in my honor…at least,” said Bellows.
POSTSCRIPT: Marinello notified INTERPOL within days of taking the case for the Museum. He was contacted six months after the photograph was recovered and told that the thief had been arrested and convicted of the crime.
An interesting side note: The Metropolitan Police would not let the Prague Police show up in uniform to retrieve the artwork. Instead, Marinello arranged for the work to be identified at a local London pub where it was turned over to Prague officials…over a pint.