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Friday, January 25, 2013

Wanted Art

When I was a teenager, I used to go to our local post office each afternoon to pick up my stack of newspapers to deliver around town. Yes, I was once a "paperboy." I delivered about 25 copies each afternoon and maybe 30 or so each Sunday morning. For this I earned the princely sum of about $4.25 per week. As I waited for them to pass me the bundle of papers, I used to kill time reading the wanted posters. Okay, so it wasn't War and Peace, maybe more like Crime and Punishment. I mention this because if you happened to be around Berlin a few years ago, you might have spotted a rather unusual "wanted" poster designed by the famous British artist, Lucian Freud, depicting his friend, fellow artist Francis Bacon. No, Bacon did nothing wrong (unless you happen to be an art critic). In any make a long story short...

Francis Bacon, 1952, Lucien Freud
Way back in 1952, some sixty years ago, Lucien painted a tiny portrait of his friend Francis on a piece of copper plate. It measured a mere 18 x 13 cm (about the size of a postcard). In what may have been the shrewdest art purchase of the year, the Tate Gallery in London bought the portrait painted by the then-unknown Freud (unknown, that is, except for the name he shared with his famous grandfather). Thirty-seven years later, in 1988, the British Council organized a foreign retrospective of Freud's work (Lucien, not Sigmund). The tiny portrait was one of the star attractions of the show. But on Friday, May 27, 1988, someone stole it. It was not exactly the art heist of the century. In fact, except for its value, it was more akin to shoplifting than grand larceny. Remarkably, security at the Neue Nationalgalerie on Potsdamer Strausse in what was then West Berlin, on that day was practically non-existent. Not a single guard was on duty from the hours of eleven a.m. to four p.m. And of course the work was so small, it would have easily fit into a jacket pocket.

None of the "wanted" posters were ever
recovered either.
There was mention of the theft in the international press at the time, but due in no small part to the embarrassment of Berlin museum officials and the Tate, the British Council made little effort to get the work back. The show was immediately closed and some nefarious character had a free portrait of a rather homely looking famous artist. Thirteen years passed and Lucien Freud decided he wanted the painting back. He offered a reward of 300,000 deutschemarks (100,000 pounds or roughly $160,000) for its return--no questions asked. Nowhere on the 2,200 wanted posters was mentioned either artist's names, only the request: "Would the person who now has possession, kindly consider allowing me to show the painting in my exhibition at the Tate next June?" The cost of the international publicity campaign was underwritten by two anonymous individuals. To date, the portrait and its heister are still at large. It was a long shot by any reckoning. Oh, and another problem, many of the "wanted" posters were stolen as collectors' items. I wonder if post offices ever have that problem?

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