Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Public safety

4-decade-old Sarasota art heist reinvestigated

SARASOTA — On an April evening nearly 44 years ago, just days after Easter Sunday, someone slipped into a museum in Sarasota and stole 15 paintings, one portraying the resurrected Jesus and 14 depicting the Stations of the Cross.

Now, a Sarasota County Sheriff's detective is reinvestigating the decades-old disappearance of the art.

"Those paintings could be anywhere in the world," said Detective Kim McGath.

All of the paintings were done by artist, illustrator and author Ben Stahl, who died in 1987. He was well known in the 1950s and '60s for being a prolific and well-compensated illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post and for creating movie posters and book covers. Ben Hur and the 25th anniversary edition of Gone With The Wind were among the movie posters; Madame Bovary was one of his limited-edition book illustrations. He also one of the first professors at the Famous Artists School, a correspondence course in art once advertised on the back of matchbooks.

Stahl, who was from Chicago, wrote and illustrated Blackbeard's Ghost, which was made into a 1968 Walt Disney film.

Commissioned to illustrate a Bible for the Catholic Press in the mid 1950s, Stahl painted the 14 Stations of the Cross. Later, he decided to paint larger versions, along with a 15th painting titled The Resurrection, because he wanted his work to end on a positive note. All 15 paintings were 6 feet by 9 feet, and done in oil.

In 1965, Stahl and his wife moved to Sarasota and decided to open a museum for the large-scale paintings. Called The Museum of the Cross, it was one of the main tourist attractions in the area at the time. He also displayed other works that he had done, some on loan from museums. Even his fellow artists were impressed.

"Those Museum of the Cross pictures are absolutely fabulous," wrote Norman Rockwell in a letter dated June 3, 1968. "The rest of us are just illustrators but you are among the masters and I am filled with admiration."

Whoever stole the paintings and other pieces of art in the predawn hours of April 16, 1969, must have known what they were doing, said McGath, because they carefully removed each of the tacks that attached the canvases to the frames.

Stahl told the Associated Press at the time that the heist was "one of the craziest art robberies of this century."

More than 50 artworks in all were stolen, including gold rosaries that Stahl and his wife had on display and had collected from their world travels.

Left behind by the burglars was The Moment of Silent Prayer, a "miracle picture" because it also survived a fire that destroyed Chicago's convention center in 1968, Stahl said at the time.

The fact that The Moment of Silent Prayer and one other painting were left untouched was interesting: They were the only two paintings on loan from another museum and the only ones that were insured.

"He couldn't understand how anyone could steal from his museum, because it was like church," said his daughter, 78-year-old Gail Stahl. "I couldn't understand why he wouldn't understand why they shouldn't have been uninsured."

McGath said that no evidence points to an insurance scam or Ben Stahl's involvement. In fact, she said, he ended up in deep financial trouble following the heist.

"He put everything into that museum," McGath said. "He mortgaged his home on the museum. He lost everything."

At the time, officials said they had no clues. One officer theorized the works might be held for ransom. One witness remembered seeing a white van near the museum that night, while Stahl recalled two visitors from South America who asked odd questions in the days prior to the theft.

The trail eventually went cold, and Stahl and his family didn't think investigators were trying as hard as they could.

"It was devastating," said Regina Briskey, Ben Stahl's daughter, who was working at the museum at the time. "It was incomprehensible, because at that time in Sarasota, there was hardly any crime."

Stahl's son, David Stahl, wrote on a website that he contacted witnesses and possible informants around Florida, but claimed authorities didn't pay attention. David Stahl could not be reached for comment for this story.

McGath — who is also investigating the cold case of a quadruple murder in 1959 in Sarasota and its possible link to the In Cold Blood killers in Kansas — said she's poring over records and wants to talk to anyone who might have information about the Stahl art heist.

INTERPOL Washington is also involved. Spokeswoman Nicole Navas said this week that officials recently sent out a message to all 190 INTERPOL member countries in an attempt to renew interest in the case, which she said is one of 500 open art heist cases being investigated by the agency.

"These paintings could be anywhere," she said.

The latest investigative efforts are welcome news to Gail Stahl, an artist herself who has a gallery in Laguna Beach, Calif.

"I certainly hope that something will be accomplished," she said. "It's really quite sad that someone can go and take someone's work like that and disappear."

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