Thanks to one wily mayor, five Old Master paintings were recovered 40 years after their theft.
Hans Holbein the Elder portrait of Saint Catherine (1510). Via Wikimedia Commons.
After years of secret negotiations, five Old Master works stolen over 40 years ago have been returned to Germany. The 1979 theft of the works shocked the city of Gotha, located in what was at the time East Germany. The five works include a portrait of Saint Catherine by Hans Holbein the Elder from 1510; a 1535 Frans Hals portrait; a depiction of a country road attributed to the studio of Jan Brueghel the Elder; a copy of an Anthony van Dyck self-portrait by one of his contemporaries; and a 17th-century portrait attributed to Ferdinand Bol.
The saga of the works’ return began in 2018, when Gotha mayor Knut Kreuch started receiving phone calls about the long-lost works. Those calls eventually led to covert negotiations with a lawyer claiming to represent the inheritors of the stolen paintings. Martin Hoernes, who works for the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation, a frequent sponsor of museum acquisitions, helped secure the paintings and take them to Berlin to verify their authenticity.
Kreuch and Hoernes managed to get the paintings back for a mere €50,000 ($55,000)—a far cry from their insurance valuation at €4 million ($4.4 million) and the lawyer’s asking price of €5.25 million ($5.8 million). Hoernes stressed that the €50,000 fee covered legal costs, research, and transportation, and the paintings were secured without a ransom.
According to The Art Newspaper, at a press conference Hoernes said:
We do not give money to thieves. But there is a gray zone encompassing war losses, for instance. In some such cases we pay a “finder’s reward,” which is not equivalent to the market price.
The civil case surrounding the recovered paintings has closed, but criminal investigations are ongoing and the identities of the original thieves are still unknown. In the meantime, the five Old Master works are on display at Schloss Friedenstein, the largest early Baroque castle in Germany and the site of the original theft. The paintings will then be restored before a 2021 exhibition dedicated to the theft.