SHARE
COPY LINK

ART

How a stolen Picasso was unearthed by the ‘Indiana Jones of art’

A Dutch art detective dubbed the "Indiana Jones of the Art World" has struck again, finding a Picasso painting worth €25 million stolen from a Saudi sheikh's yacht on the French Riviera in 1999.

How a stolen Picasso was unearthed by the 'Indiana Jones of art'
The Dutch art detective with Picasso's "Portrait of Dora Maar", AFP PHOTO / Arthur Brand

Arthur Brand said he had handed back the 1938 masterpiece entitled “Portrait of Dora Maar”, also known as “Buste de Femme (Dora Maar)” to an insurance company earlier this month.

The discovery of the rare portrait of Maar, one of Pablo Picasso's most influential mistresses, is the culmination of a four-year investigation into the burglary on the luxury yacht Coral Island, as she lay anchored in Antibes.   

Two decades after its theft and with no clues to its whereabouts, the French police were stumped — and the portrait, which once hung in the Spanish master's home until his death in 1973, was feared lost forever.

But after a four-year trail which led through the Dutch criminal underworld, two intermediaries turned up on Brand's Amsterdam doorstep 10 days ago with the missing picture.

“They had the Picasso, now valued at €25 million wrapped in a sheet and black rubbish bags with them,” Brand told AFP.   

It was yet another success for Brand, who hit the headlines last year for returning a stolen 1,600-year-old mosaic to Cyprus.   

He won world fame in 2015 after finding “Hitler's Horses”, two bronze statues made by Nazi sculptor Joseph Thorak — a discovery about which he had a book out earlier this month.

Drugs and arms deals

The theft of the Picasso, valued at around seven million dollars at the time, baffled French police, sent the super-rich scurrying to update boat security and prompted the offer of a big reward.

In 2015, Brand first got wind that a “Picasso stolen from a ship” was doing the rounds in the Netherlands, although “at that stage I didn't know which one exactly.”

It turned out that the painting had entered the criminal circuit, where it circled for many years “often being used as collateral, popping up in a drug deal here, four years later in an arms deal there,” said.

It took several years and a few dead ends before pinning down that it was actually the Picasso stolen from Saudi Arabian billionaire Sheikh Abdul Mohsen Abdulmalik Al-Sheikh's yacht as the mega-cruiser was being refurbished, Brand said.

Brand put out word on the street that he was looking for “Buste de Femme (Dora Maar)” and in early March he struck gold.   

“Two representatives of a Dutch businessman contacted me, saying their client had the painting. He was at his wits' end,” said Brand.   

“He thought the Picasso was part of a legitimate deal. It turns out the deal was legitimate — the method of payment was not,” Brand laughed.   

Brand called the Dutch and French police — who had since closed the case — and who said they would not prosecute the current owner.   

“Since the original theft, the painting must have changed hands at least 10 times,” said Brand.

Brand said he had to act quickly, otherwise the painting may have disappeared back into the underworld.

“I told the intermediaries, it's now or never, because the painting is probably in a very bad state… We have to act as soon as we can.”

'Hung it on my wall'

Then, just over a week ago, Brand's doorbell rang at his modest apartment in Amsterdam, and the intermediaries were there with the painting.   

After unwrapping it, “I hung the Picasso on my wall for a night, thereby making my apartment one of the most expensive in Amsterdam for a day,” Brand laughed.

The following day, a Picasso expert from New York's Pace Gallery flew in to verify its authenticity at a high-security warehouse in Amsterdam.   

Also present was retired British detective Dick Ellis, founder of Scotland Yard's art and antiquities squad, representing an unnamed insurance company.   

“There is no doubt that this is the stolen Picasso,” Ellis, who now runs a London-based art risk consultancy business, told AFP.    

Ellis is famous for recovering many stolen artworks including Edvard Munch's “The Scream”, lifted from the National Gallery of Norway in 1994.   

“It's not only the public interest to recover stolen works of art,” he said. “You are also reducing the amount of collateral that is circling the black market and funds criminality.”

“Buste de Femme” is back in possession of the insurance company, which now had to decide the next steps, Brand and Ellis said.

By Jan Hennop / AFP 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

ART

Paul Gauguin’s ‘Mata Mua’ returns to Spain

One of French painter Paul Gauguin's most famous paintings, "Mata Mua", will return to a Madrid museum on Monday following an agreement between the Spanish government and its owner, who took it out of the country.

mata mua madrid
Toward the end of his life, Gauguin spent ten years in French Polynesia, where he completed some of his most famous artwork Painting: Paul Gaugin

The artwork had been on display for two decades at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza museum but in 2020 when the institution closed because of the pandemic, the painting’s owner Carmen Thyssen moved it to Andorra where she currently lives.

Her decision to take “Mata Mua” to the microstate sandwiched between Spain and France raised fears she would remove other works from her collection which are on display at the museum.

“It is expected that the painting will arrive today,” a spokeswoman for the museum told AFP.

mata-mua_gauguin-madrid

In 1989, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza bought Mata Mua at the Sotheby’s auction in New York. Painting: Paul Gauguin

The artwork will go back on display to the public “a few days after” Thyssen signs a new agreement with the Spanish state for the lease of her collection, she added. The deal is expected to be signed on Wednesday.

Painted in 1892 in vivid, flat colours, “Mata Mua” depicts two women, one playing the flute and the other listening, set against a lush Tahitian landscape.

It is one of the stars of Thyssen’s collection of several hundred paintings which are on show at the museum, including works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Claude Monet.

Her collection had initially been displayed at the Madrid museum as part of a free loan agreement signed in February 2002 that was subsequently extended.

But in August 2021 Spain’s culture ministry announced it had reached an agreement with Thyssen to rent the collection from her for 15 years for €97.5 million ($111.5 million), with “preferential acquisition rights on all or part” of the works. The collection includes a Degas, a Hopper and a Monet.

Aside from housing her collection of works, the museum displays the collection of her late husband, Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Swiss heir to a powerful industrial lineage who died in Spain in 2002.

The Spanish state bought his collection in 1993 from $350 million, according to the museum.

SHOW COMMENTS