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Raiders of the Lost Art

Libi Astaire

To its owner, a stolen painting may be a million-dollar investment or perhaps a precious heirloom, a part of family history that is now lost. To an art thief it’s just another commodity, something to be traded, ransomed, or sold. But to Christopher Marinello, head of the Art Loss Register, that stolen work represents both a challenge and a mission.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

art theftShe was just a child when her parents commissioned Belgian artist Antoine (Anto) Carte to paint her portrait in 1932. Dressed in a blue dress that emphasized the color of her blue eyes, she posed holding a bunch of daisies in her right hand. Her pet rabbit, whose white fur matched the white petals of the flowers, sat demurely by her side.

Jeune Fille a la Robe Bleue may not rank as one of the world’s great masterpieces, but for the little girl in the picture — whose family was forced to flee and abandon their possessions when the Nazis overranBelgium — the painting remained a precious memory. Although she and her family survived the war by hiding in the Belgian countryside, and then filed a claim for the missing piece of art in 1946, the fate of the painting remained unknown.

Until 2008.

“We located the painting at aLong Islandart gallery,” says Christopher Marinello, executive director and general counsel for the Art Loss Register, a company dedicated to recovering stolen works of art.

The owner of the gallery, who had no idea the painting had been stolen by the Nazis, cooperated with Marinello, whose recovery operation was backed by the US Department of Homeland Security. The painting was returned to the family of the “girl in the blue dress” — she is now an elderly woman living inBelgium— in an emotional December 2009 ceremony attended by both US and Belgian officials.

According to Marinello, the recovery of that painting is one of the highlights of his career. But with more than 370,000 stolen works of art, antiquities, and collectibles listed in the Art Loss Register (ALR) — enough to keep him and his staff busy indefinitely — he doesn’t have time to rest on his laurels. In fact, just a few days before this article went to press, ARL was in the news again: A Matisse painting, stolen from a Parisian gallery owner named Paul Rosenberg during World War II, was traced by ARL to theHenieOnstadArtGalleryinOslo,Norway. Negotiations for the return of the painting are currently taking place between theRosenbergfamily and the museum, with the help of Marinello and his staff.

 

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