30 March, 2012
4 July 1988. As revelers filled Manhattan’s nighttime streets, a thief quietly picked the locks of Solomon Galleries at 959 Madison Avenue, at 75th Street and left a few minutes later, five modern masterpieces tucked under his arm.
The works were:
Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), Figuration (1947)
Franz Kline (1910-1962), Untitled (1947) and Mulberry Centre (1958)
Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), Effigies (1975)
Karel Appel (1921-2006), Abstract Painting (1959)
Fernand Léger (1881-1955), Still Life with a Blue Bottle (1950)
The gallery reported the theft to the New York City Police Department, FBI, and Interpol. With so few clues, as is so often the case with stolen art, all they could do was wait patiently and hope the paintings would one day re-emerge into a visible part of the art market.
The outstanding piece of that valuable little collection was pop-art progenitor Léger’s Still Life with a Blue Bottle. Painted five years before he died, in the year his first wife passed away (they had just celebrated their 30th anniversary), it was typical of his modern style, where colors over-edge their borders, creating new spatial relationships for what would otherwise have been a straightforward still life.
The first artwork to reappear from its illegal hibernation however, was Karel Appel’s Abstract Painting in 2003. An art dealer in Stuttgart, Germany, contacted the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) regarding the oil on canvas.
Then things got slightly strange. The dealer had checked with IFAR through his lawyer who said his client had purchased five of the six stolen works while in New York. When asked, the lawyer was unable to produce sales documentation and refused to tell the police the name of his client - although they did hand over the painting.
After a German prosecutor issued a warrant for “aiding and abetting the sale of stolen goods”, police raided the lawyer’s home but failed to uncover any reference to the dealer’s details (officers said the dealer’s papers had been expunged from the lawyer’s records) and, during the search a law firm partner ended up being charged with threatening a police officer involved in the raid. The art dealer found new counsel, a Munich criminal lawyer, who refused to cooperate in any way and that, was that - the missing paintings, seemingly within grasp, returned to the underworld.
Nine years later, in 2012, Ute Griesser, a German art conservator, contacted Jack Flam, the president of the Dedalus Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in New York created by Robert Motherwell. The Dedalus Foundation was set up to “foster public understanding of modern art and modernism through its programs in arts education, research and publications, archives and conservation, and exhibitions, as well as in the guardianship and study of Robert Motherwell’s art.” Griesser asked Flam to authenticate a painting she and her brother had inherited from her father. It was real, Flam said, but unfortunately it was stolen. The painting, oil on Masonite, was Motherwell’s Figuration. Flam suggested that Griesser contact Chris Marinello, which she did.
Marinello immediately flew to Cologne and identified four inherited works as the paintings stolen in 1988 (Kilne’s Mulberry Centre is still missing).
This case should have been straightforward but it turned into one of the most frustrating recovery efforts. A “discussion” was had with the police who, after they’d taken the paintings into their possession, decided this was a great PR opportunity for them and invited the press along for a look. This attracted a great deal of a publication to a case that wasn’t yet over. The thief had yet to be caught, for a start (although it’s unlikely to ever happen), and the paintings couldn’t be handed straight back to the victims, nor to the insurance company that had paid out on the former gallery’s theft policy (the gallery had since closed). It needed to be established not only whether the family wanted to buy them back from the insurance company, as was their right per the policy, but whether the paintings had increased in value by such a proportion that their sale could be used to benefit both insurance company and the family.
The police were persuaded to let Marinello take possession of the paintings, bring them back to New York and talk through what should happen next with the insurance company and former owners. The paintings, estimated to be worth £200,000 in 1988 had risen in value - but no one was sure exactly by how much.
The insurance company hadn’t paid out the paintings’ full value at the time, so the idea was to help both parties reach an amicable solution. It didn’t help that the family’s legal representative was their daughter, making her un-objective (and inexperienced in this area) - and added pressure was in place thanks to the fact that the other daughter wrote for the New York Times. Finally, one night at 11pm (after nine months of negotiation), the family accepted a deal to consign the pictures to Sotheby’s and Christie’s for sale. While the Appel wasn’t sold, the Kline went for £16,250, the Motherwell for £43,250 and the Buffet for £79,250, while the Léger (estimated to go for £150-200,000) was sold for £301,250, so fortunately, there was enough proceeds generated to satisfy both the theft victim and the insurance company.