Henri Matisse’s “Le Jardin”, an oil on canvas from 1920 that is now worth about $1 million (€760,000), was found when art dealer Charles Roberts ran it through a global database of stolen art — standard practice before a sale.
The team at the Art Loss Register quickly identified the painting as the one stolen from the Swedish museum on May 11, 1987, when a burglar broke in with a sledgehammer and made off with the artwork in the early hours of the morning.
Several attempts were made to ransom the painting or sell it back to the museum for a huge sum, according to reports at the time, but the museum refused, and the trail went cold — until last month.
Within a few days of matching the Matisse with the stolen painting on the database, a specialist had taken possession of the work and put it in his safe, where it is now awaiting delivery to the Swedish museum.
Roberts, who runs Charles Fine Art in Essex, east of London, said he had been asked to sell the painting by an elderly man in Poland who had owned it since the 1990s and now wanted to raise money for his grandchildren.
Given that the dealer did not know who owned the Matisse before that, Roberts ran it through the Art Loss Register to check its provenance.
“I didn’t anticipate hearing that it had been stolen. It came as quite a shock to find that out,” Roberts told AFP.
“It would have been good all round, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. As soon as I was informed of its status there was no question about doing anything but returning it.”
The Polish man had bought it “in good faith”, Roberts said, and when he told him it was stolen and could not be sold, the man “was bewildered, taken aback, although he did say, ‘So it definitely is a real one?'”
The director of the Swedish museum at the time of the theft had told reporters that the painting was too well-known to sell on the open market, and this is likely why it had been missing for so long.
Christopher A. Marinello, the art recovery specialist and lawyer who has locked the work in his safe, said:
“Stolen artwork has no real value in the legitimate marketplace and will eventually resurface…. It’s just a matter of waiting it out.”