A Marc Chagall painting, Othello and Desdemona, 1911, has been recovered by the FBI almost thirty years after it was reported missing. The artwork was one of the items stolen from a Manhattan apartment while retired jeweler Ernest “Pick” Heller and his wife, Rose “Red” Heller, were away on their yearly trip to Aspen in 1988.
Last year, an unidentified man in Maryland contacted the FBI after he unsuccessfully tried to consign the work to a gallery in Washington, DC, in 2011 and 2017. The gallery owner was suspicious over the lack of paperwork and refused to sell the painting. The dealer then encouraged the man to contact the authorities.
“Gallery owners are our first line of defense in identifying pieces of art that do not have the appropriate documentation and should be brought to the attention of law enforcement,” said supervisory special agent Tim Carpenter of the FBI’s Art Crime Team.
According to court documents, the Maryland man acquired the painting directly from the suspected thief in the late 1980s or early 1990s. The alleged burglar, who worked in the Upper East Side apartment building where the Heller couple lived, has previously served time for selling stolen art and other property.
Before the Maryland man approached the Washington, DC, gallery, he had found a buyer for the work and tried to strike a deal. After it fell through, he stored the painting in a custom box, labeled “Misc. High School artwork,” and stashed it in his attic.
The painting, initially purchased by the Hellers in the 1920s, depicts Shakespeare’s Othello standing and holding a sword as he looks over Desdemona, his bride, while she lies in bed. Since the Hellers, who were in their eighties at the time of the robbery, have passed away, Othello and Desdemona will be returned to their estate. It will eventually be sold at auction, and the proceeds from the sale will be used to reimburse the insurance company that paid the theft claim, as well as several nonprofit organizations already supported by the estate, including the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where Rose Heller served as a board member.
Since the statute of limitations for the theft has expired, no one will be charged for the crime. The whereabouts of the other items taken from the Hellers’ apartment, including paintings, sculpture, and jewelry, are still being investigated.