In 1988, when collectors Ernest “Pick” Heller and his wife Rose “Red” Heller returned from their holidays, they discovered their apartment had been robbed. A lifetime of collecting was gone, and Mr Heller was particularly saddened by the loss of Othello & Desdemona, an early (1911) small oil painting by Marc Chagall. Thirty years later, the FBI cracked the case.

Ernest “Pick” S. Heller and Rose “Red” F. Heller Ernest “Pick” S. Heller and Rose “Red” F. Heller. Photo Nancy Crampton. ARR.

It turns out the theft was an inside job, as a person who had access to the building was found to steal from apartments when the tenants where away. This person (no names have been disclosed, which indicates that some parties might be collaborating with the FBI on the case) then contacted a man with connections to criminal organizations in Bulgaria to sell the artwork. Somehow the deal felt through, and the intermediary kept the painting as he suspected the thief of double-crossing him.

Marc Chagall Marc Chagall.

The painting was then kept in an attic, with occasional attempts to sell it to dealers. A gallery owner in Washington, suspecting foul play given the lack of provenance history, reached out to the FBI. Using a label at the back of the painting that mentioned the Hellers, the investigators were able to track it back to the original theft case.

Marc Chagall Marc Chagall. Courtesy Omer Tiroche Gallery.

The collectors have since passed away, and the estate plans to sell the painting, with benefits split between reimbursing the insurance premium ($100,000 at the time) and charity organizations. The painting is estimated between $300,000 and $700,000 depending on its condition.

Othello & Desdemona (1911), Marc Chagall Othello & Desdemona (1911), Marc Chagall. Courtesy FBI.

No other stolen items have been recovered… yet.

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