Stolen Chagall Oil Painting Returned to NYC Family 30 Years Later

The 1911 Marc Chagall painting, "Othello and Desdemona," was recovered last year in Maryland

A Chagall painting stolen from a Manhattan couple's home nearly 30 years ago is finally being returned to the family, the FBI says. 

The 1911 Marc Chagall painting, "Othello and Desdemona," was recovered last year in Maryland, where a man twice tried to sell it to a Washington, D.C. gallery owner. The suspicious gallery owner said he couldn't sell the piece without proof of ownership, and told the man to contact law enforcement -- and he did.

It turned out the man had kept the painting in his attic for years, after he'd gotten it from the thief who swiped the artwork in 1988. Investigators believe the man who stole the painting — along with over a dozen other pieces of art and jewelry — from Ernest and Rose Heller's apartment on the Upper East Side was a building worker who had access to the home's security system, authorities said. 

The Maryland man intended to sell the stolen Chagall to a potential buyer, but the deal collapsed when he learned he wasn't going to receive a cut of the proceeds, according to the FBI. So he stashed it in his attic for years, trying to sell it once in 2011 and again in 2017. 

"Well documented and known art is very hard to move once it has been stolen," said Supervisory Special Agent Tim Carpenter of the FBI's Art Crime Team. 

The oil painting on canvas created in the early stages of Chagall's career depicts a male, Othello, in the left foreground holding a sword in his hand and looking at a female figure, Desdemona, lying on a bed in the right background.

The Hellers, who bought the painting in the 1920s, have both died, and the painting will now be returned to the family's estate, which plans to place it on auction and return the proceeds to the insurance company that paid the theft claim years ago, and to several non-profit organizations supported by the estate. 

"This piece of artwork is of significance not just for its monetary value, but for its place in the world of art and culture. The FBI continues to commit investigative resources to recover cultural property," said Washington Field Office Assistant Director in Charge Nancy McNamara.

The statute of limitations for the theft has expired, so neither the thief who took the painting and the Maryland man who kept it for decades faces charges. The thief, though, was previously convicted and sentenced on charges related to selling stolen property, including art from other apartment buildings. 

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