Picasso’s “Dora Maar” recovered after 20 years
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In the Netherlands, a stolen Picasso has been recovered after 20 years by the Dutch art-crime investigator Arthur Brand. The portrait, known as Buste de Femme (Dora Maar) (1938), was worth roughly 28 million dollars and was taken from the yacht of Saudi billionaire Sheikh Abdul Mohsen Abdulmalik Al-Sheikh in Antibes, France in 1999. Brand first learned that the work was circulating around the Dutch black market in 2015, and recovered the painting when it was used as payment in what its recipient believed to be a legitimate business deal.
Lisa DeBoer, Westmont’s Art History Specialist was able to provide expertise insight on the significance of this theft, the painting, and the incredible story behind its recovery.
The piece itself was an abstract representation of a woman named Dora Maar. Dora Maar was a photographer and artist herself, and one of three Picasso’s known mistresses in the time that he was married. “[Picasso] is a very complicated person when it comes to his treatment of women and his attitude towards women,” commented DeBoer, describing the significance of the piece. Picasso created an astonishing amount of portraits of Dora Maar, and he kept this one in his personal collection. “Picasso did not sign works that he did not intend for sale” she explained, and it was only sold after Picasso died in 1973. “With this particular instance there are so many versions of Dora Maar. This is a really interesting story, it’s just not a pivotal point for the history of art,” said DeBoer, “For the majority of Art Historians, our interest is in the interpretation, the meaning, the use, the background; the reproductions are mostly what we rely on in our day-to-day research anyways.” There is a small margin of Art Academics that do study the layers of the paintings and use the original as source material; this particular portrait is one of almost a hundred others so that academic loss is not really significant.
So why is this such a fascinating case? The answer lies in the man who found the Picasso. Arthur Brand is a self-described “Independent Art Detective” who lives his life like a 21st-century Indiana Jones. Arthur Brand has had a fair amount of success working as a private art detective and has recovered quite a few significant pieces. “The detective who found this in Amsterdam strikes me as an interesting guy because this is what he does. He tracks down works that have been stolen and evidently he has informants in the underworld who help him,” said DeBoer, chuckling slightly.
After traveling through the Netherlands and recovering this piece, Brand hung it in his flat for one night and had a glass of wine while admiring the Picasso from his sofa before turning it into the police the next day.
Evidently, stolen art circulating the underworld is not an uncommon occurrence. Much like how in the legal business world, art can work as a form of collateral form for taking a loan; in the criminal underworld, art circulates as money. “Most stolen artwork ends up in private collections of underworld crime bosses,” explained DeBoer. However, the issue with this—besides the morality of it—is that eventually paintings can lose value and possess too much risk to keep. “You cannot resell stolen art, you can only trade it around as a form of collateral. Tragically some important pieces that get stolen end up being destroyed because they are no longer functioning as currency and you can never sell them or get caught with them.”
This is theorized to perhaps have happened to a few masterpieces notoriously stolen over a decade ago. “The most shocking and fascinating theft that preoccupies me is from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where two Rembrandts, a Vermeer, and a few other pieces were stolen after hours. There are only 34 or 36 Vermeers—there are two disputed attributions—but there are only 34 extant paintings by Vermeer, and one of them got stolen. They cut the canvases out of the frames and rolled them up. None of these pieces have been recovered,” lamented DeBoers. To this day the Elizabeth Gardner museum is offering 10 million dollars for any information as to the location of these stolen paintings.