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Friday, March 30, 2012

The Long Arm of the Law

24 years after they were stolen from the Solomon Gallery on Madison Avenue in NYC, four important contemporary paintings -- by Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Jean Dubuffet, and Fernand Leger -- have been recovered in Cologne, Germany.

On July 4th, 1988, an unidentified intruder picked the locks of the gallery and made off with six paintings. At the time, the theft was reported to the NYPD, the FBI, and Interpol, and was registered with the International Foundation for Art Research and with the Art Loss Register.

Here's the story as released today by the Art Loss Register: “An oil on canvas by Karel Appel,was the first work to resurface and was recovered in 2003 when a German art dealer searched the ALR Database through his lawyer in Stuttgart, Germany. The dealer claimed to have purchased five of the six stolen works on a buying trip in New York but the lawyer could produce no documentation of the sale and refused to divulge the name of his client to authorities.


A German public prosecutor issued a warrant for aiding and abetting the sale of stolen goods but a police raid of the lawyer's home and office failed to uncover the other pictures. According to law enforcement, all references to the dealer had been removed from the firm's case files and in a bizarre series of events, one law firm partner was charged with threatening a police officer involved in the raid.

The sudden focus on the law firm meant the lawyer could no longer represent the art dealer who quickly retained new counsel. Hiding behind this second lawyer, a criminal specialist from Munich, the German dealer once again refused to cooperate and the case went cold.

Over the course of the next nine years, no attempts were made to contact the ALR or authorities over the stolen pictures. Finally, in 2012 the daughter of the now deceased dealer contacted the Dedalus Foundation in New York to authenticate the stolen Motherwell. The daughter, a fine art professional, had also approached a local auction house but was quickly referred back to the ALR. The ALR Recovery Team immediately flew to Cologne where they met with police authorities and positively identified the works as the paintings stolen in 1988.

Christopher A. Marinello, a lawyer who specialises in recovering stolen and looted artwork for the ALR, negotiated the return of the four paintings with the lawyer for the family. ‘At the Art Loss Register, we're going to make life difficult for those who attempt to sell stolen art. You can hide behind lawyers and look for loopholes in civil law jurisdictions, but eventually you're going to have to deal with some very uncomfortable issues. The problem will not simply disappear with the passage of time. Leaving stolen artworks to the next generation is a losing proposition.’

Marinello credits authorities in the US and Germany for their strong support: ‘International cooperation among law enforcement is alive and well when it comes to recovering stolen art. The determination and tenacity of Special Agent Meredith A. Savona of the FBI Art Crime Team, NYPD Detective Mark Fishstein and the Cologne Police Department were critical in bringing these pictures home.’

Despite this auspicious ending one final work remains unrecovered. Mulberry Centre by Franz Kline appears to have been separated from the others.”