Over Vitebsk

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Marc Chagall, Over Vitebsk, 1915

Marc Chagall's Over Vitebsk is a modernist masterpiece that evokes the powers of simple geometry and complex composition all at once. Its plays on color are stunning, the yellow and blue amongst a world of white and grey. The faceless wanderer floating above the city, sack in hand, not only stands in for Chagall's departure from his home town, but also for the escape of Jews from the oppression of Russian  prejudice. However, all of these things have been said, and said, and said again. Instead of harping on the artistic merit of this particular painting, I believe we'll all have a much better time exploring the theft of the painting that came before it. 

Marc Chagall, Study for Over Vitebsk, 1914
Study for Over Vitebsk, a dark painting no bigger than a sheet of printer paper with an estimated value of $1 million, hung in a temporary collection of Chagall's entitled "Marc Chagall: Early Works from Russian Collections" on June 7th, 2001 when it was stolen straight off the wall. For several days, no clues came up as to the whereabouts of the painting. Finally, a letter was delivered to the museum from an organization calling itself the International Committee for Art and Peace.

 It was a ransom note like no other. The thieves had no intention of profiting from the work. Instead they asked for something straight out of a Miss America pageant: Peace. The thieves promised the Jewish Museum of New York City that the painting would be returned when the Israelis and Palestinians could achieve peace between their nations. A noble cause, to be sure, however, the thieves' plans were not well laid. As it turns out - and this may come as little surprise - museums don't have much sway in international relations, and the Jewish Museum was forced to give up what little hope they had left of ever seeing its painting again. 

That is until it showed up in a post office in Topeka, Kansas, where its packaging was opened after being deemed undeliverable. Following a series of calls to the F.B.I. in my hometown of Kansas City, the painting was promptly returned to its owners in St. Petersburg. Though the painting and its owners had their happy ending, the thieves never got theirs. Theft may not be the most morally sound method of encouraging world peace, but it begs the question: If lives and art are equally threatened by a world at war, what is safe?

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