In 1985 this work of art by Willem de Kooning was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of art. The thieves entered the museum when it opened, the day after Thanksgiving. One of the thieves, a woman, distracted the museum security guard, while a man went upstairs and cut the canvas from the frame. The work has now been returned, and the story of the theft and recovery is pretty remarkable. The reporting indicates that the work very likely was stolen as a prize for a couple’s private collection, hidden in plain sight behind their bedroom door.
The painting was recently discovered in the estate of Rita Alter after her death. Rita and her husband Jerry may have been the thieves. The Arizona Republic reports:
Jerry and Rita Alter spent Thanksgiving Day 1985 with family in Tucson.
A newly discovered photo from the gathering shows them smiling side by side at the dinner table, plates of pumpkin pie in front of them.
Jerry was a retired music teacher and Rita a speech pathologist; a couple of New Yorkers in their 50s who had moved to rural New Mexico.
A day after the photo was taken, a valuable painting by the artist Willem de Kooning was taken from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson. Officials believed the thieves — a man and a woman — distracted a guard, cut the painting from the frame, rolled it up and carried it out of the museum under a coat.
The thieves and the painting disappeared without a trace.
Composite sketches, in hindsight, resemble the faces in the Thanksgiving photo, down to their position side by side.
Here’s a terrific local news documentary on the theft, which hints that there may have been other thefts:
The Visual Artists Rights Act, or VARA, has since 1990 granted artists moral rights to their works of art. At least in the United States. Other nations have granted these moral rights to their artists for far longer. These are non-economic rights which prevent mutilation or destruction of works of art, and VARA lasts for the lifetime of the artist. Unfortunately much of the language of VARA is cumbersome and has relied on judicial massaging to reach a workable framework. And even despite this massaging, the concept of moral rights have not been favorably received in most courts. So it is noteworthy when an artist is able to successfully invoke the protections of VARA.
Such appears to be the case with respect to this work, “The Illuminated Mural” which was created on the side of this building on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit in 2009. At the time, Craig had received an agreement from the owner of the building that the mural would remain there for at least 10 years. When the building was sold to a new owner, the mural was jeopardized by plans to potentially redevelop the building. So in January of 2016, Craig filed a lawsuit asking for an injunction to preserve the mural.
This week, the current owner of the building has reached an agreement with Craig that will allow the mural to remain on the side of the building.
As she told Crain’s after the settlement:
“I’m really happy we got a break-through with ‘The Illuminated Mural’ where we are able to protect the work and maintain the original contract, which was the goal,” Craig said Friday afternoon. “It’s respect for the artwork that’s there and the future of the community, and the developer as well. We reached a middle ground there that I am happy with.”
How long and what the terms of the agreement may be are not public. But this large mural has earned a reprieve.
The Associated Press reported this week that five important works stolen from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in 2010 may have been destroyed. This work by Léger was apparently stolen to order, and in his zeal to capitalize on his time in the museum, the thief managed to make life considerably more difficult for his alleged co-conspirators because he stole some more very notorious works which only served to attract more attention from the authorities.
At a trial in Paris, one of the defendants, Yonathan Birn, claimed to have destroyed the works after fears that the investigation into their disappearance would lead to him.
Christa Roodt, of the University of Glasgow and the University of South Africa, and Bernadine Benson, of the University of South Africa have an article in the June issue of the South Africa Crime Quarterly examining databases for stolen art with a particular emphasis on the South African position post-Apartheid. They make a good common-sense argument in favor of a centralised database for South Africa which would assist both the market and law enforcement. Here’s the abstract:
Addressing the illicit trade in stolen works of art and other heritage items is notoriously difficult. Before thefts of heritage items can be recorded, the object in question must be identified as having special significance. The investigation of the circumstances in which such an object was acquired and the enforcement of legal and ethical standards of acquisition become unduly complicated in the absence of a comprehensive national inventory of museum holdings and of a database of stolen art and cultural objects. This article considers the development of inventories and databases in South Africa and elsewhere. We argue that cross-sectoral cooperation in sharing databases needs to improve significantly in order to boost compliance with due diligence standards. To help restore the credibility of the trade in art and cultural objects, the South African Heritage Resources Information System site must be endorsed as the centralised database for heritage crime. This would provide ready access to databases, helping art market participants, law enforcement officers and customs officials in the investigation of stolen art works.
25 years ago tonight, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum suffered a devastating loss to its collection. 13 works of art led to a FBI investigation, and a new Federal Criminal provision. But the works themselves are still lost. Today brings a slew of examinations of the theft and the subsequent investigation.
This week sees the beginning of the trial of José Manuel Fernández Castiñeiras, an electrician accused of stealing the 12th century illuminated manuscript from the Basilica of Santiago de Compostela. The Codex was taken in July, 2011 and was recovered a year later in the garage of Castiñeiras.
The Codex contains illuminated sermons, music, descriptions of the pilgrimage on the Wa;y of St. James in Galicia in Spain. It is written in Latin, and Christopher Hohler the latin is intentionally bad, so that the text serves as a kind of grammar book. Even in the 12th century it seems students needed a lively picture and satire to get them to learn it seems. Writing in 1972 Hohler wrote that anyone used to reading 12th century Latin (which I am most certainly not) will: Continue reading “Trial Begins for the theft of the Codex Calixtinus”
Back in December, the FBI announced that in coordination with the LAPD’s art theft detail, it had recovered these nine works of art, which had been stolen from an elderly couple’s home in Encino in 2008 while the housekeeper was away grocery shopping. The cell-phone search warrant affidavit offers a rare glimpse into how thieves attempt to sell laundered art.