Over Vitebsk: A Marc Chagall stolen
It was during a lively cocktail reception at the Jewish Museum in New York City ,on June 7th 2001, when the $1 million dollar “Study for Over Vitebsk” painting by Marc Chagall was plucked off the wall and smuggled out. The painting had been on loan from a private collector in St-Petersburg, and was being showcased in a temporary exhibition titled “Marc Chagall: Early Works from Russian Collections”. The exhibition displayed 56 works by Chagall completed between 1908 and 1920, including paintings, drawings, and murals for the State Jewish Chamber Theatre in Moscow. The theft apparently occurred between the onset of the cocktail event on the evening of June 7th and the morning of June 8th, when a single screw was found on the floor in front of the space where the painting had been hanging, indicating that it had been forcibly removed from the wall. It measured 8 by 10 inches and could have been easily concealed under a coat or in a briefcase.
“Study for Over Vitebsk” was created by Chagall in 1914. It was an oil painting on canvas depicting a man with a walking stick and a beggar’s sack floating over Chagall’s hometown of Vitebsk, Russia. It symbolized the plight of the Eastern European Jewish population who was being forced to move regularly. The suspended figure appears in shadows, giving the impression that he is ceasing to exist. His facial features are not clearly discernible, as if they do not matter. Chagall’s probable intention was to show the world how it felt to be on the outside of a marginalized culture, and how it felt to be disembodied from the community and the world during times of persecution. This piece was a draft for the larger, similar work titled Over Vitebsk, created in the same year.
A Clue is Found
A few days after the theft, the Museum received a ransom letter postmarked in the Bronx, and dated June 12th from an organization previously unknown to the local police and the F.B.I. They called themselves the International Committee for Art and Peace, and they had but one demand in exchange for the safe delivery of the Chagall work. They did not demand copious sums of money or fame; they wanted peace to be established between the Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, a request far beyond the control of the Jewish Museum. There was no indication as to which side they sympathized with, nor did they specify the exact conditions of peace that would secure the safe return of the Chagall painting.
The letter also contained an apology to the Museum for the embarrassment this event caused, and wholeheartedly claimed that the work was “being taken care of.” Although the letter was typed, the Museum’s address on the envelope was hand-written. The whole underwent extensive forensic examination before being released. The Museum, in conjunction with local authorities, promptly offered a reward of $25,000 to anyone who would provide information leading to the whereabouts and recovery of the Marc Chagall work.
It was not until February, 2002 that the painting was discovered in a postal office in Topeka, Kansas. The postal employee, who opened the package for investigation because it was marked undeliverable, did not recognize the painting. However, once the many museum and gallery stickers on its backside were revealed, the employee went on the internet and logged on to the F.B.I’s website for stolen art. Upon seeing a picture matching “Study for Over Vitebsk”, the F.B.I. bureau in Kansas City was notified.
On February 21, 2002, the painting was returned to the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, and was inspected by Bella Meyer, granddaughter of the famous artist and a leading authority on his work. She confirmed that it was genuine. The painting is now comfortable back home in St-Petersburg, on display in the Russian Museum.
About the Author
Julie Gladstone is an aspiring artist and avid Marc Chagall fan. She provides content for the Marc Chagall Paintings website.