FBI recovers valuable Chagall painting stolen in New York City 30 years ago

The FBI has recovered a valuable Marc Chagall painting that was swiped from a New York City apartment nearly 30 years ago.

The critically-acclaimed artist’s “Othello and Desdemona” had been stashed for years in a Maryland attic, the FBI said Thursday.

According to the FBI, the oil-on-canvas work will be returned to the estate of an elderly couple, Ernest and Rose Heller, who were the owners when it was stolen. They have since passed away.

The Hellers returned from a two-month vacation in August 1988 to find their 16th-floor Manhattan East Side apartment had been looted of more than $750,000 in art and jewels, The Associated Press reported at the time.

The stolen works included a Renoir and the Chagall, which they purchased in the 1920s, according to the report. Chagall painted it in 1911 in Paris.


“As soon as I opened the door, there was an emptiness,” The AP quoted the then 88-year-old Mrs. Heller as saying. She said the thieves took the most valuable works, leaving behind those by lesser-known artists.

“It was an inside job,” Marc Hess, a member of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, said. “A person who had regular access to the building was stealing from apartments while the tenants were away.”

Marc Chagall painted Othello and Desdemona in 1911 in Paris.

Marc Chagall painted Othello and Desdemona in 1911 in Paris. (FBI)

The thief’s fence was a Maryland man with ties to the Bulgarian mob, the New York Post reported.

The fence found a black-market buyer shortly after the theft but the deal fell through when he discovered he wasn’t going to receive any of the proceeds, the paper reported.

According to the Post, the thief was trying to deal with the mobsters directly without the fence.

The FBI said that after the deal collapsed, the fence kept possession of the Chagall and over the years stored it in his attic in a makeshift wooden box.

According to the FBI, in 2011 and then in 2017 the man tried to sell it through a Washington art gallery. He was rebuffed.

The gallery owner was suspicious about the lack of paperwork supporting the painting’s authenticity and provenance and suggested that he call law enforcement, which he did, the FBI said.

“Well documented and known art is very hard to move once it has been stolen,” Art Crime Team supervisor Tim Carpenter said.

The FBI said the painting shows Shakespeare’s Othello holding a sword and looking at his bride, Desdemona, lying on a bed.


The statute of limitations for the theft has expired so no charges are pending against the thief or the fence, the FBI said. The thief has served time in prison for burglarizing artwork from other apartment buildings.

The investigation into the other missing Heller-owned artwork, including the Renoir, is continuing.

The Heller estate says it will auction the Chagall. Some of the proceeds from the sale will be used to repay the insurance company that paid the theft claim years ago.