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‘Indiana Jones of the Art World’ Finds Picasso Stolen 20 Years Ago From Saudi Billionaire

The painting had been ‘used as collateral, popping up in a drug deal here, four years later in an arms deal there,’ says Arthur Brand

Dutch art detective Arthur Brand has been trying to find "Buste de Femme" for years. (Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images)
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In March 1999, an art packing expert was called to the luxurious yacht of a Saudi billionaire to secure a 1938 Picasso painting—one of many pricey artworks that adorned the boat, which had docked at a tiny resort on the French Riviera. As the Independent reported at the time, the piece, titled “Buste de Femme,” had to be taken down during painting work on the yacht’s apartments. So the packing expert wrapped the Picasso up and placed it on the floor of a locked cabin, planning to leave it there until it could be sent into storage. But when he came to collect the painting a few days later, it was gone.

For 20 years, the whereabouts of “Buste de Femme” remained a mystery. But according to the Associated Press, the crusading “Dutch art sleuth” Arthur Brand has finally tracked it down.

Brand tells the AP that he spent years trying to find “Buste de Femme,” a portrait of the French photographer and painter Dora Maar, who was romantically linked to Picasso in the 1930s and 40s. In 2015, according to the Agence France-Presse, Brand learned that a “Picasso stolen from a ship” was circulating in the Netherlands, but at that point, he was not sure if it was the same one swiped from the yacht of Sheikh Abdul Mohsen Abdulmalik Al-Sheikh in 1999. Brand was ultimately able to confirm that the painting was in fact “Buste de Femme,” and he made it known to his sources that he was interested in recovering it. Earlier this month, he was contacted by two representatives of a Dutch businessman who claimed to have the artwork.

“He was at his wits’ end,” Brand tells the AFP. “He thought the Picasso was part of a legitimate deal. It turns out the deal was legitimate—the method of payment was not.”

Just a few days ago, the businessman’s representatives showed up at Brand’s apartment in Amsterdam, toting a painting covered in two plastic bags. Brand suspected the painting was the real deal as soon as he saw it. “You know it’s a Picasso because there is some magic coming off it,” he tells the AP. But a Picasso expert from Pace Gallery in New York has also confirmed the work’s authenticity.

During the years that it was missing, “Buste de Femme” changed hands at least ten times, “often being used as collateral, popping up in a drug deal here, four years later in an arms deal there," Brand explains to the AFP. According to the publication, Dutch and French police have said that they will not prosecute the businessman who most recently had the painting in his possession.

For the most part, Brand doesn’t spend his days tracking down precious artworks through the seedy underbelly of the criminal world. He told the Independent’s Matilda Battersby in 2016 that his company primarily advises collectors on how to avoid buying forgeries and, to a lesser extent, helps Jewish families recover Nazi-looted art. But the man dubbed the “Indiana Jones of the art world” has helped pull off a number of high-profile and impressive recoveries of stolen artworks. In 2015, for instance, he helped trace two towering bronze horses made for Adolf Hitler to a “Nazi-sympathizing family” reports Kyle Swenson of the Washington Post. To suss out the statues, which most likely rightfully belonged to the German government, Brand invented a fake buyer—a Texan oil tycoon named “Mr. Moss.” Last year, he found a 1,600-year-old mosaic that had been swiped from a church in Cyprus in the 1970s.

“Buste de Femme,” which is worth an estimated $28 million, has now been turned over to an unspecified insurance company. But before relinquishing the painting, Brand did take a moment to bask in its glory. “I hung the Picasso on my wall for a night,” he tells the AFP, “thereby making my apartment one of the most expensive in Amsterdam for a day.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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