United States • 1882−1967

An oil painting by Marc Chagall stolen from a New York City apartment has been recovered by the FBI. The artwork "Othello and Desdemona," painted in 1911 will be returned to the family's estate after nearly 30 years. It is expected to fetch several hundred thousand dollars at auction to benefit charities and refund the insurance carrier’s payment.
The painting belonged to retired jeweler and art collector Ernest “Pick” Heller and his wife Rose “Red” Heller. In addition to Chagall, the couple owned some 21 paintings and 12 sculptures in all, including works by Pierre August Renoir, Othon Friesz, Georges Rouault, Pablo Picasso, and Edward Hopper

The work was stolen from their New York apartment back in 1988, when they were on vacation, along with numerous other paintings, sculptures, and art objects including jewelry, carpets, silverware, and Steuben china. At the time of the robbery, the couple’s stolen property was collectively valued at an estimated $600,000. Adjusting for inflation, that would be $1.3 million today.
Ernest “Pick” S. Heller, left, and Rose “Red” F. Heller in 1983. The woman at center is unidentified. (Nancy Crampton/Nancy Crampton/The MacDowell Colony)

The Hellers were longtime art and music patrons. Ernest Heller, who graduated from Princeton University at 19 and joined the family business, importing Mikimoto pearls, learned Chinese and became a trustee of the New York City Center, a forerunner of the Lincoln Center, according to his university alumni death notice.

Rose Heller served on the boards of several U.S. contemporary music organizations, supporting festivals in Aspen, Colo., and Tanglewood in Massachusetts, and raised more than $1 million for the MacDowell Colony, which has supported more than 7,700 artists in residence since 1907, including Aaron Copeland, James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein and Alice Walker.

1.1. “The Garden,” or “Landscape with Trees and Flower,” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir was stolen from the Hellers in 1988 and remains missing. (Estate of Rose F. Heller)
1.2. “Christ on the Road to Emmaus,” or “Christ with Two Disciples,” by Georges Rouault also remains missing after the 1988 theft from the Hellers. (Estate of Rose F. Heller)

Today, investigators believe the theft was committed by someone who worked in the building and had access to the security system. The crime has remained unsolved since it occurred in 1988; no arrests have been made, and none of the artworks have surfaced — until now.

The Maryland man, who has not been named, said he planned to sell the stolen Chagall to a potential buyer, but the deal fell through after a dispute over his cut of the earnings, the FBI said. Instead, he kept the painting in his attic and attempted to sell it in 2011 and again in 2017. The FBI’s Art Crime Team tracked down the painting with the help of a gallery in Washington, DC. The art gallery owner rebuffed his offer, noted that it required documents proving ownership and referred the man to the FBI, according to prosecutors.

With the statute of limitations now expired, no charges are expected against the thief or the Maryland man, neither of whom are named in court filings. The man suspected of stealing the painting has already been convicted of crimes "related to the theft and sale of other works of art stolen from other apartment buildings," according to court documents.
After seizing the painting, the FBI discovered a label on the back, in German, that identified “Mr. + Mrs. E.S. Heller, New York” as the “besitzer,” the German word for owner. The couple had lent the piece to a Chagall exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zurich in Geneva, Switzerland in 1967.

The back of Marc Chagall’s Othello and Desdemona (1911) with a label idenifying the Hellers as its owner. Photo courtesy of the FBI.
Chagall, a Modernist pioneer, became a preeminent artist of the 20th century but was little known in 1911, having arrived in Paris just the year before from his native Belarus, then part of Russia.

Chagall thought enough of “Othello and Desdemona” that he suggested the Hellers offer a Zurich art museum a chance to include it in a 1967 retrospective of his work. It was exhibited, and that June, Heller politely rebuffed a gallery owner in Basel, Switzerland, who asked whether the painting was for sale.

Left: Marc Chagall. Self-portrait with seven fingers, 1913.

Today, according to the artnet Price Database, Chagall’s work routinely sells for millions at auction. His record is $28.45 million for Les Amoureux, a 1928 canvas of a man and women embracing. The painting, sold in November at Sotheby’s New York, is said to depict the artist’s first wife and great love, Bella Rosenfeld.
Othello and Desdemona, however, is unlikely to reach similar heights. “It’s not a particularly attractive painting, nor from the photograph does it appear to be in particularly good condition,” art adviser Todd Levin said.

“Similar pieces have been sold in the relatively recent past, and I think they’d be lucky to get $600,000 today, including buyer’s premium.”

“A sensible auction estimate would be $300,000–500,000, and it’s very possible that the painting might not sell at all,” he added. “This is not an important painting in the artists’ output by subject matter, scale, period, or in any other way.” Levin noted that the fact that the work had been missing for so many years would probably only diminish its value, due to the likelihood that the painting was improperly stored.

Chief executive of Art Recovery International Marinello cited a higher figure. “We have been given preliminary estimates of around $700,000–900,000,” he said. “The provenance is impeccable. The victim’s father purchased the painting from Chagall himself. There is a significant exhibition history as well.”

Othello and Desdemona had been appraised at Sotheby’s for $50,000–65,000 in 1974. It was originally purchased by Ernest’s father Samuel Heller for just $50 in 1913. A student at Ècole Julien Art School in Paris, Samuel was friends with Fernand Léger, who likely introduced him to Chagall.
Marc Chagall’s signature on his painting Othello and Desdemona (1911). Photo courtesy of the FBI.

In any case, we will wait for the auction result, with proceeds going to refund a payout by the Hellers’ insurance company and any remainder to charities named by their estate — 80 percent for the MacDowell Colony and 10 percent each to Columbia University and New York University Medical School.

Based on materials from Artnet, Washington Post, NY Times and others resources.

Title illustration: Marc Chagall. Othello and Desdemona, 1911.