04 June 2013

Matisse: art stolen (1987) then restored (2013)

Henri Matisse (1869–1954) lived in Paris where he was an active part of Montparnasse's thriving art world. He spent time in Morocco and Algeria before World War One broke out in 1914, but it wasn’t until 1917 that he moved his home to the French Riviera where the winters were very pleasant.

During the second half of the war, Matisse spent most winters in Nice over-looking the Mediterranean. He often stayed at the Hôtel Mediter­ranée, a Rococo-style building he later described as faked, absurd and delicious! Interior at Nice 1920 was one of a series of images Matisse created using the hotel as a back­drop, all of which are done in his post-war naturalistic style. As with his orientalist odalisque paint­ings, his interiors had detailed floors, furniture, wall paper, shutt­ered French windows and balconies. Matisse often included a young woman somewhere in his scenes. The Art Institute of Chicago focused on the carefully composed scene with its decorative richness, its warm, silvery palette and clear brush strokes.

Readers might also like to search out Odalisque with Raised Arms 1923 which can be seen in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The stylistic connections with Interior at Nice continued throughout the early 1920s.

Matisse, Interior at Nice, 1920
132 x 89 cm
Art Institute of Chicago

How very different was Matisse's impressionist gardenscape Le Jardin 1920, a small work consisting of a garden of white roses in the foreground, and bushes and trees in the back ground. It was donated to the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm in Nov 1977. And although I cannot find who had bought the painting from Matisse, I did find who had donated it to the Museum so many decades later – Nora Lundgren.

The theft of Le Jardin happened in May 1987. Apparently the thief knew which painting he was after and came armed with nothing more lethal than a hammer for the glass wall of the museum and a screw-driver to take down the painting.

26 years later, the painting popped up mysteriously when Charles Roberts, an Essex based art dealer, was offered the piece by a Polish collector. Neither Charles Roberts nor the unnamed Polish collector are suspected in relation to the crime. In fact it was Roberts who searched for information on its background through the Art Loss Reg­ister, a database centred in London dedicated to stolen art. The team at the database company quickly identified the painting as the one they were seeking; the original frame was damaged, but the painting itself seemed to be largely intact.

Once the painting was identified, the director of the Art Loss Register, Christ­opher Marinello, began negotiations for it to be returned home via the Swedish Ministry of Culture. In Sweden, the statute of limitations on art thefts is 10 years and so no police investigation will be possible there. In any case Marinello said that stolen artwork has no real value in the legitimate market place and would eventually have resurfaced anyhow. For the professionals, it was just a matter of waiting it out.

Matisse, Le Jardin, 1920
45 x 34 cm
Museum of Modern Art, Stockholm

But two things seem bizarre. If the stolen art market is estimated at between $6 billion and $7 billion per year, according to the Art Loss Register, other art lovers will be asking if stolen artwork has a value in the ILlegitimate market place? And is there a longer statute of limit­at­ions in, for example, Britain where the Matisse surfaced?

A second comment made even less sense to me. Martinello said the Art Loss Register would norm­ally receive a small fee from insurers for recovering a stolen painting. However the Matisse was government-owned and uninsured, so no fee would be paid. I don't understand - wouldn't govern­ments be much more accountable to the art loving world than private owners?

Readers might like to refer to an excellent blog called Centre for Art Law, an amalgam of art and cultural heritage law resources and reviews.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Coming from the director of the Art Loss Register, Marinello's odd comments seem rather flip, and evade all of the real issues.

First of all, it is not just a matter of waiting for return. Some stolen art is destroyed, lost, or badly damaged. Precious metals in addition can be melted down--I recall some Anglo-Saxon gold cups that met their end this way.

Also, his statements assume that all art is stolen for profit, yet quite a bit is taken for political, fanatic, or insane reasons. Art theft is related to incidents of art vandalism (the Pieta, Rodin's Thinker in Cleveland, the Hope Vase, etc.); this in turn affects museum security, display, and public access to art.
--Road to Parnassus

Andrew said...

I struggled to get past 'lived in Paris, spent time in Morocco and Algeria and spent the latter half of the war in Nice'.

Hels said...


Agreed. The real issues were evaded when Le Jardin was first located and identified, and they are still being evaded now. The Art Loss Register said they HAD told the police about the painting, but nobody seemed to think that it was worthwhile doing much more about the theft.

Stolen artwork has no real value in the legitimate market place? I must be missing something.

Hels said...


I think I blurred the issues a bit myself .....by talking about Matisse's lifestyle and his "more typical" paintings in the decade after WW1 ended.

The alternative would have been for me to launch straight into Le Jardin and take the risk that noone in the universe could have identified the artist. If you tortured me, I would not have come up with the name Matisse.

Student of History said...

The Centre for Art Law is interesting. They said that most thieves know nothing about art. YET following drug trafficking, money laundering and arms trading, art theft is the most lucrative blackmarket activity, worth $7+ billion every year. They also say that only 5-10% of stolen artwork is recovered.

Hels said...

Thanks for the reference, Student. I will add the reference to the post: http://www.itsartlaw.com/

If art theft is one of the most lucrative blackmarket activities on the planet, and if only 5-10% of stolen artwork is recovered, why aren't we making more effort a] to prevent the theft and b] to recover art, once it has been stolen?

Saying the stolen art "would eventually have resurfaced anyhow. For the professionals, it was just a matter of waiting it out" is counter-productive.

P. M. Doolan said...

The whole issue with art theft is an interesting one. Insurance is a problem, especially when states own huge amounts of art - states simply don't have a arts budget big enough to insure what they own. According to Interpol, about 30,000 art works are stolen every year from French collections. In Italy the number is even higher.
I've read somewhere that much stolen art is used as collateral for illegal arms deals and never reenters the art market but circulates among the world's organised crime groups.

Hels said...


Thank you. The more I read, the more this issue is becoming problematic. If insurance would be prohibitively high and if tens of thousands of works of art are already being stolen each year, then prevention might be the only weapon left.

The Matisse thief knew which painting he was after and arrived with just a hammer and a screw-driver. I think the Stockholm Museum of Modern Art could have made the thief's job a GREAT deal trickier.

Mandy Southgate said...

Isn't it incredible? I imagine many cases are uncovered for moral reasons alone or for the love of art. There seems to be little incentive otherwise. And aren't real life art thefts dramatically low tech? Hollywood gets it wrong with all of the acrobatics under laser beams.

Hels said...


I assume the director of the Art Loss Register must have rushed into print without thinking it through. Which was a shame ...since I started this post in awe of their mammoth project.