The Motherwell Is Real, but There’s a Hitch

When a German art conservator recently sought to authenticate an early painting by Robert Motherwell that she had inherited, the director of the artist’s New York foundation told her there was both good news and bad news. The work, “Figuration,” a charming 1947 oil on masonite, was real. But, the art conservator was told, the painting was stolen.

On Friday the Motherwell, along with three other paintings that were stolen from a Madison Avenue gallery in 1988 and now valued at $1 million, were recovered by police in Cologne, Germany, and turned over to the victim’s insurance company. The works were part of a batch of a half dozen contemporary paintings that were swiped from the now-defunct Solomon Gallery during a weekend theft. One, a painting by Karel Appel, was recovered in 2003 when the owner, a German dealer, tried to get it authenticated. According to Christopher A. Marinello, a lawyer acting on behalf of the insurer, the dealer said he had bought the painting during a trip to New York City but refused to reveal the seller’s identity. A lawyer handled all the negotiations, so the German dealer’s name was never disclosed to law enforcement.

When the dealer died in 2009, he left four other paintings that were part of the same 1988 heist to his children. “The problem will not simply disappear with the passage of time,” Mr. Marinello said. “Leaving stolen artworks to the next generation is a losing proposition.”

Jack Flam, the president of the Dedalus Foundation, a nonprofit created by Motherwell (who died in 1991), said that he immediately recognized Motherwell’s “Figuration” as a stolen painting. After informing the dealer’s daughter, Ute Griesser, that the Motherwell she and her brother inherited was stolen, Mr. Flam said he suggested she contact search stolen art databases, which she promptly did.

Mr. Marinello negotiated the return of the four stolen works: “Figuration”; “Untitled 1947,” by Franz Kline; “Still Life with a Blue Bottle” by Fernand Leger; and “Effigie” by Jean Dubuffet. The recovered works are now owned by the Solomon Gallery’s insurance company, said Mr. Marinello. The sixth work, “Mulberry Centre,” also by Kline, is still missing, Mr. Marinello said