New York Art Theft Seen As 'Creative Terrorism'

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - In what one art expert here called a "creative form of terrorism," thieves have stolen a painting by a famous Jewish painter from a New York museum, and they are holding it for "ransom" - a ransom stipulated as Middle East peace.

Marc Chagall's "Study for 'Over Vitebsk'" disappeared from the Jewish Museum in New York several months ago.

Earlier this week, when news of the ransom note came to light, news reports said it was not clear whether the unidentified group involved in the theft sympathized with Israel or with the Palestinians in the current conflict.

But for Adina Kamien-Kazhdan of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the choice of painting was highly significant.

"[Chagall] represents the quintessential Jewish artist," she said, and the stolen painting is "a symbol of Jewish art."

Chagall first visited the Holy Land in 1931, and many times after that.

His works are displayed in the halls of the Israeli parliament as well as at the world-famous Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where 12 stained glass windows depict the 12 sons of the biblical patriarch Jacob from whom originated the 12 tribes of Israel.

Kamien-Kazhdan considers it ironic that Chagall's work - which he had used many times as a vehicle for protesting anti-Jewish atrocities in the 20th century - was now being hijacked itself to make a political point.

Anti-Defamation League spokeswoman Laura Kam-Issacharoff said that while she could not say if the theft was an anti-Semitic action, it was certainly "an affront to all civilized people."

The 1914 work, valued at around one million dollars, was discovered missing from the New York museum on June 8, a day after the museum hosted a reception for some 200 people. Vitebsk is the poor Jewish village (shtetl) in Byelorussia where Chagall, the eldest of nine children, grew up.

Part of an exhibition of 56 paintings completed from 1908 to 1920, the painting had been on loan to the museum from a private collection in Russia.

About a week after it disappeared, the museum received a typed letter saying it would be returned only after peace between Israel and the Palestinians was achieved.

"We were shocked and extremely distressed [at the loss]," museum spokesperson Anne Scher said by telephone from New York.

She said museum staff had been relieved when the letter arrived, at least to have some idea of what had become of the painting. They were now hoping for its recovery, she said, but declined to comment on the demands contained in the letter.

Museum authorities said that the 8-inch by 10-inch painting could have easily been slipped into a briefcase or under a shirt.

The FBI, earlier this week released news of the letter in the hopes the information may prompt someone with information about the painting to come forward.

The museum is offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to its return, Scher said.

Although the full contents of the ransom note have not been released, there is no indication that the writer's put forward any ideas on how the Israeli-Arab conflict should be resolved.

Art For Ransom

Art and politics have become entwined in the past, according to Anna Kisluk, Director of Art Services at the Art Loss Register, which has more than 100,000 stolen items of artistic value on its database.

In a phone interview from New York, she cited the Nazis' looting and destruction of art throughout Europe during World War II, and the Taliban's recent destruction of ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.

But stealing art with the hope of achieving political goals was "fairly rare," Kisluk said.

In 1974, the IRA raided stole more than 20 paintings by noteworthy artists from an Irish estate, demanding the release of political prisoners in Northern Ireland as well as a large monetary ransom.

Law enforcement officials recovered the paintings and at least some of those responsible served time in prison for the theft, she said.

During the 1980s, the theft in Norway of Edvard Munch's "Scream" prompted anti-abortion activists to demand that if an anti-abortion film be aired on television, it could help recover the painting.

When police finally recovered the artwork, however, they discovered that the group had nothing to do with the theft, Kisluk recalled.

On the demands being made for the return of the Chagall painting, she said if politicians from around the world - "in most cases with the best of goodwill" - were unable to bring about Middle East peace, it was unlikely that stealing a work of art could.