Stolen Picasso’s return is latest triumph for art world’s ‘Indiana Jones’

By | March 27, 2019

He’s not called “the Indiana Jones of the art world” for nothing.

Ace art researcher Arthur Brand has tricked Nazi sympathizers into coughing up swiped treasures, negotiated with Mafiosi over hot paintings and tracked down missing Byzantine mosaics.

Like his fictional film namesake, the Dutch-born sleuth says he has learned to deal with a global criminal underbelly and a level of danger not typically found in stuffy high-end galleries.

“These are people who kill when they see a need for it. So of course, I have to keep my word when I give it to them,” he told the Independent in a 2016 interview. “Because if I don’t, I might be in serious trouble.”

So far, Brand, 48, has come out on top.

It was revealed Tuesday that two weeks ago, he made another sensational recovery — of a $ 28 million Picasso painting missing for 20 years.

When two intermediaries delivered the precious cargo to Brand’s apartment in Amsterdam, it was wrapped in black garbage bags.

First, the trio toasted the painting. Then Brand called the cops.

But before the famed researcher relinquished the priceless work, he said, he had to do one thing.

“I hung the Picasso on my wall for a night, thereby making my apartment one of the most expensive in Amsterdam for a day,” he quipped to Agence France-Presse.

Brand has helped solve some of the world’s most fascinating and high-profile heists of everything from statues commissioned by Adolf Hitler to a multimillion-dollar Salvador Dali painting.

In 2015, he became a household name — at least among art geeks — when he duped a group of Nazi sympathizers into revealing the whereabouts of “Hitler’s Horses,” two massive bronze statues commissioned by the Führer himself.

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The statues had stood guard on either side of the doorway to the German Reichstag building and were thought to have been bombed to smithereens during World War II. They were recovered from a warehouse on a rented property in a tiny bucolic town in western Germany.

Arthur Brand with two priceless limestone Visigoth reliefs from the 7th century, which were both stolen from the Maria del Lara Church in Spain
Arthur Brand with two priceless limestone Visigoth reliefs from the 7th century, which were both stolen from the Maria del Lara Church in SpainAFP/Getty Images

The next year, he helped recover two multimillion-dollar pieces — including Dali’s mind-bending surrealist artwork “Adolescence” — which had been snatched from a Dutch museum by a masked gang in 2009. The other painting, Polish Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka’s “La Musicienne,” was featured in Madonna’s music video “Vogue.” It later sold for $ 1.5 million.

Last year, Brand was hailed as an art-world hero once again when he tracked down a Byzantine mosaic of Saint Mark, which had been swiped from a church in Cyprus in the 1970s.

Not bad for a guy who moved after high school to Spain, where he watched two-bit antiquities robbers pilfer archaeological sites.

Brand’s hunt for the Picasso painting began four years ago, when he caught wind that the stolen painting was circulating among criminals in the Netherlands.

It had disappeared in March 1999, when a bandit climbed aboard a luxury yacht owned by a Saudi prince. The billionaire, Sheikh Abdul Mohsen Abdulmalik Al-Sheikh, had docked his 238-foot vessel in the French Riviera, where it was being renovated.

The thief quickly snatched the artwork, “Buste de Femme,” which sat wrapped in paper, on the cabin floor of the yacht. The Picasso painting portrays the artist’s former lover Dora Maar.

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“[It] was often being used as collateral, popping up in a drug deal here, four years later in an arms deal there,” Brand told the Dutch paper de Volkskrant. “Everyone assumed it had been destroyed.”

The theft baffled French police, who offered a reward of hundreds of thousands for its safe return. Some art experts believed it was lost forever.

At first, Brand wasn’t even sure what the painting looked like. It hadn’t been published in a book, there were almost no pictures of it, and it had never been in a museum.

But he did what he does best and used a combination of in-depth research, contacts and people skills in the global black market to crack the case.

Brand, who has sources in the criminal underworld, put out word that he was looking for it, he told AFP. Leads went nowhere for years — but then, earlier this month, he got a call.

It came from two tipsters who told him that a Dutch businessman bought the Picasso painting without knowing its illicit back story. Reps for the businessman soon called Brand.

They said “their client had the painting. He was at his wits’ end,” Brand told AFP.

Arthur Brand with the missing Byzantine mosaic of St. Mark, stolen from a hotel room
Arthur Brand with the missing Byzantine mosaic of St. Mark, stolen from a hotel roomAFP/Getty Images

“He thought the Picasso was part of a legitimate deal. It turns out the deal was legitimate — the method of payment was not.

“I told the intermediaries, ‘It’s now or never, because the painting is probably in a very bad state . . . We have to act as soon as we can,’ ” he said.

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When the men delivered the painting to him, “They had the Picasso, now valued at 25 million euros [$ 28.2 million], wrapped in a sheet and black rubbish bags with them,” Brand said.

An expert from the Pace Gallery in New York authenticated the piece, according to the industry site Artnet.com.

Police declined to prosecute the painting’s last owner, so Brand surrendered the masterpiece to a Dutch insurance company, which will soon decide what to do next.

Brand, who specializes in art from World War II, has estimated that 30 percent of all works sold on the market are forged. He also says that only 5 percent of all stolen artwork is ever recovered.

“It’s very hard because if the criminals believe the police are catching up with them, they will destroy the artwork,’’ he told the Independent in 2016.

He added that sometimes, criminals ask for surprising things when dealing for a piece’s return.

“I once had to negotiate the return of a painting [from the] Mafia,’’ he said. “I didn’t succeed. But the negotiation, the deal the Mafia wanted, was to get better phone access for their partners in jail so they could have an hour a week on the phone from their cells.”

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