Missing for Four Decades, a Stolen Motherwell Painting Turns Up

Posted July 12, 2018 10:31 p.m. EDT

Sometime in 1978 a huge piece by Robert Motherwell, the modernist painter, went missing from a Manhattan warehouse, one of dozens that were lost and thought stolen when Motherwell hired a moving company to help him switch his works from one storage site to another.

On Thursday, four decades after it disappeared, the untitled 1967 work, now valued at $1 million, was returned to the foundation dedicated to preserving Motherwell’s legacy. It was found in a garage in upstate New York by the son of a man who used to work for the movers.

Federal investigators who helped arrange the return to the Dedalus Foundation did not identify the man who returned the painting. But officials of the foundation said that last October the man was helping his mother sort through some belongings when he inspected the painting and noticed the artist’s name written in faint pencil on the back of the orange, crimson, blue and black canvas

The man searched the internet for information about the artist and approached the foundation, which then matched photos of his piece to photos of the stolen painting. Yes, it was the same work.

Officials said Thursday that the foundation then contacted the FBI, and investigators with its art crimes unit found that the man’s father, who died in the 1990s, had worked at the Manhattan-based moving company at the time the works went missing.

Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, unveiled the work at a news conference Thursday in Manhattan where the foundation took possession of the 69-by-92 inch painting.

The work has a few mold stains that will be removed, but Jack Flam, the president of the foundation, said in an interview that the painting appeared to be in good shape and had been stored correctly, upright and wrapped in plastic.

Following Motherwell’s death in 1991, virtually all his paintings were deeded to the foundation.

Berman said: “Today, dozens of works by Motherwell remain missing. We hope that they remain in the same condition as this piece and that anyone encountering these pieces in the market brings them to the attention of law enforcement.”

The authorities said that they do not believe the son knew the work had been stolen but that it did seem that it had been purposely taken, not simply misplaced. Flam said there were marks on the back of the painting where warehouse labels had been ripped off.

Katy Rogers, director of the Robert Motherwell catalogue raisonné project, said that the man who approached the foundation had hoped to sell the painting if he could verify that it was real but agreed to return it when he found out the circumstances under which it had gone missing. Rogers said that there are many fake paintings attributed to Motherwell floating around and that it can be difficult to tell if they are real without expert guidance.

Motherwell was a 20th-century U.S. painter, printmaker and editor who played a major role in the abstract expressionist movement. He is well known as a member of the New York School, alongside artists including Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. He created abstract paintings and colorful collages made of sheet music, stamps and tobacco labels, among other items.

The Dedalus Foundation will circulate the painting as part of its educational programs.