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A Lee Krasner Painting Just Sold For $11.6 Million. But Its 1990 Theft Is Still Unsolved.

The great abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasner had no shortage of drama in her life.

Krasner, known for her bold, gestural work, was a celebrated female artist at a time when her field was dominated by men. She continued to stand out at the time of her death in 1984, that year becoming one of a select few women to have ever been honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Beyond her artistic output, Krasner’s life was defined in the public eye by her marriage to another giant of the art world, Jackson Pollock, and his alcoholism, affairs and untimely death in a car crash. Her past inspired Marcia Gay Harden’s Oscar-winning performance in “Pollock” and John Updike’s late career novel “Seek My Face” (2002).

It feels fitting, then, that a piece by Krasner would have also have interesting story to tell — if only canvas could talk.

Krasner’s painting “The Eye is the First Circle” (1960), which broke her auction record by selling for $11.6 million in a Sotheby’s auction this past May, was stolen in a long-forgotten string of New York City art heists in December 1990. A press release from Sotheby’s announcing the painting’s lot had a coy reference to its connection to “three separate burglaries leading up to Christmas 1991.” As Nate Freeman reported for Artsy, this spate of thefts involved four paintings, together worth an estimated $8.3 million in today’s money, all nabbed in the course of a week. Only two of the four paintings have as of yet been recovered.

The thefts began on December 17, 1990, when an unknown burglar took the elevator to the office of art dealer Peter Bonnier’s West 23rd Street gallery. There, the thief found an untitled Willem de Kooning painting from 1962, valued at $750,000. According to a January 1991 recap of the thefts by New York Observer reporter Charles V. Bagli, the thief snagged the de Kooning and disappeared.

Two days later, between the hours of 11:00 am and 6:15 pm on December 19, thieves broke into the East 20th Street home of John Cheim, then the director of Robert Miller Gallery. Cheim had a showroom in his apartment where he would display certain works consigned to or owned by the gallery. The thieves cut “The Eye is the First Circle,” then valued at $1 million, out from its frame, and also snatched David Salle’s painting “Sales Girls” (1983), worth $400,000. The thieves left without bothering to close the door. Freeman reports an insurance company for the gallery offered $50,000 to anyone with information relating to the works’ whereabouts.

On December 21, the last and most curious theft occurred.

A driver carrying Chaim Soutine’s “L’Apprenti” from a framing shop to Beadleston Gallery on East 91st Street stopped mid-route to deliver something to Acquavella Galleries on East 79th Street. While he was inside, an unknown thief entered the truck and sped off with the Soutine.

The timing raised the eyebrows of one insurance investigator on the case, who, as he told Bagli, suspected the thief might have had prior knowledge of when and where the painting was being transported.

The truck carrying the stolen Soutine was found in Harlem a few days after the theft; the painting was gone. The missing de Kooning also never turned up. The Salle was found in 1991, and the Krasner, following an anonymous tip, was subsequently located and restored, then kept in the collection of Robert Miller’s wife Sarah Wittenborn Miller until this summer, when she consigned it to Sotheby’s. The Krasner’s new owners, announced following the auction, are Emily and Mitchell Rales, whose collection is housed in their private museum Glenstone in Potomac, Maryland.

It’s still not known who committed these Christmastime thefts, or if the crimes were, in fact, connected. Given the timing, it’s not impossible that someone was surprised with a masterpiece that holiday season.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected]

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