01:52 - Source: CNN
Stolen paintings worth millions returned

Story highlights

12 paintings are stolen from the Los Angeles home of a bedridden elderly couple

It takes six years for FBI, police to get an overseas tip that leads them to an L.A. fence

Investigators arrest man, recover nine paintings worth up to $12 million

FBI, LAPD offer $25K reward to find others involved in one of biggest local heists

CNN  — 

One of the biggest art heists in Los Angeles history began when a housekeeper left the home of an elderly bedridden couple.

“There was a small window of opportunity for the crime to have occurred,” Los Angeles Police art theft detective Don Hrycyk said Friday.

When the housekeeper returned, hooks appeared where paintings once hung. The elderly couple, Anton and Susan Roland, were too disabled to be aware of the daytime burglary in their home in Encino, California, authorities said.

In all, 12 paintings were stolen, including a watercolor by Marc Chagall entitled “Le Paysans” and a water-based media on paper by Diego Rivera entitled “Mexican Peasant.”

It took six years for the FBI and Los Angeles investigators to receive a big break in the case in which a $200,000 reward was being offered: an overseas tipster gave information that ultimately led investigators to set up an undercover purchase of the paintings from a man in a West Los Angeles area hotel.

Nine of the paintings were recovered in that operation in October, and those works are valued at up to $12 million, authorities told reporters Friday. The remaining three paintings are still being sought.

“This is the greatest value we’ve had in recent history,” Hrycyk said of the $12 million art theft.

$5 million bail

Raul Espinoza, 45, has been charged with receiving stolen property and has pleaded not guilty to the felony. He is being held on $5 million bail, said spokesman Ricardo Santiago of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office.

Raul Espinoza, 45, has pleaded not guilty and is being held on $5 million bail.

Espinoza’s public defender wasn’t immediately available for comment.

Authorities are still investigating the case, the FBI’s Bill Lewis said at Friday’s press conference. Lewis is the assistant director in charge at the FBI in Los Angeles. The FBI and Los Angeles police believe other people were involved in the theft.

The art was so valuable that the pieces would have been tough to fence, officials said.

“That’s why these types of crimes don’t make sense,” Hrycyk said. “Maybe a person has the ability to commit the crime … but then to profit from it, it’s going to be very difficult. As you can see, it’s been six years since the crime occurred, and still the art was not sold.

“These things are one of a kind, irreplaceable and have historical and cultural value,” he added. “L.A. is the second largest area for the visual arts in this country, and we need to have the resources to pursue these types of crimes.”

Mystery deepens

Investigators don’t have good descriptions for the three other paintings, other than one was by Hungarian artist Endre Szasz. That’s because the couple had a large amount of art in their home.

The recovered paintings no longer have their frames.

“They are not in as good a shape as they were when they were taken, but luckily, for how they’ve been treated, they’re not that bad,” Hrycyk said.

The Rolands died before the nine paintings were recovered. Anton Roland died four months after the theft and Susan Roland died earlier this year, authorities said.

The art insurance company now owns the paintings after making a payout to the couple, but under typical policies, a family is allowed to buy back the art and regain title from the insurers, authorities said.

In the meantime, a $25,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the conspirators, authorities said.

“The FBI and the LAPD will not give up on any investigation until we have been able to recover the artifacts and bring the people responsible to justice,” the FBI’s Lewis said.

The paintings reclaimed

Here’s a list of the recovered paintings:

“Blue Bottle” by Hans Hofmann, 1947, signed and dated lower right corner, 49 3/4” x 62 1/8” unframed.

“La Femme en Rouge” by Chaim Soutine, circa 1926, signed lower right, oil on canvas, 29 7/8” x 21 3/4” unframed.

“Figur mit Hund” by Emil Nolde, circa 1912, signed lower right corner, oil on canvas, 31 5/8” x 27 9/16” unframed.

“La Vielle Dame au Chien” by Chaim Soutine, circa 1919, no signature noted, oil on canvas, 36 1/4” x 25 5/8” unframed.

“Le Paysans” by Marc Chagall, circa 1976, signed lower right, watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper, 24” x 18 1/2” framed.

“Fin de Seance” by Lyonel Feininger, circa 1910, signed and dated upper left corner, oil on canvas, 37 3/8” x 33 3/4” framed.

“Portrait of Alicia Alanova” by Keis Van Dongen, circa 1933, signed lower right, oil on canvas, 25 5/8” x 21 1/2” unframed, but with the original inner liner still secured to the stretcher.

“Cubist Still Life” by Arshile Gorky, circa 1928-1929, unsigned, oil on canvas, 22 1/8” x 15 1/8” framed.

“Mexican Peasant” by Diego Rivera, circa 1938, signed and dated lower left, water-based media on paper, 14 7/8” x 10 3/8” framed.