A masterpiece of mystery Art theft: After a 24-year odyssey through Miami and New York, a stolen Chagall painting worth $1 million returns to its Baltimore owners, but its theft remains an unsolved crime.

April 25, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

It's only a 10-minute ride from the elegant brick apartment building at 7111 Park Heights Ave. to the main floor of the Baltimore Museum of Art, where Marc Chagall's "Le Petit Concert" hangs by a doorway.

But the 1968 work, finished late in the career of the Russian-born painter, took 24 years to make the trip -- with detours through Miami, a mysterious warehouse near Kennedy International Airport and the secret compartment of a millionaire's yacht. During the journey, the Chagall's value jumped from $65,000 to more than $1 million.

Even with the recent conviction and sentencing of a New York man for illegally selling the Chagall in 1990, the central mystery of one of the nation's most unusual art thefts remains: Who broke into Leslie and Naomi Legum's ninth-floor apartment in April 1970 and took the Chagall, a Picasso and two dozen other works of art?

The answer is buried, probably forever, in a story with more colorful characters than the artist's dreamiest paintings: a Mexican sculptor, a Queens man with ties to organized crime, a tax-shelter guru who lived in a medieval castle on Long Island, and the eccentric Baltimore FBI agent whose investigative work would lead to the recovery of the Chagall -- nearly nine years after his own death.

The Legums have both died within the past two years, and many details of the 20-year-old search died with them, friends and family say. Their New York lawyer says his files on the case have been lost.

"This was a very unusual case because the whole story played out. The painting was found, there was a trial," says Constance Lowenthal, an expert on art thefts who is executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research.

"In this area, there are always new detective's cases, new thefts. But there are very few endings where the art is returned," Ms. Lowenthal adds.

On April 27, 1970, a Monday, the Legums' housekeeper arrived at their ninth-floor Park Heights Avenue apartment to find that the front door lock had been pried loose over the weekend. Inside, the apartment looked "like it had been ransacked," said the Legums' son, Jeff.

With the Legums away in Portugal, the housekeeper called Jeff, who rented a place on the fifth floor. He quickly went upstairs and began to take inventory of what had been lost: the paintings, a tapestry, some jewelry. He also decided not to call his parents because he "didn't want to ruin their vacation." They thanked him later.

Naomi Legum was the daughter of Lionel M. Hendler, maker of Hendler's ice cream and a collector of art. In 1939, she married Abe Legum's son Leslie. Building on his father's successful auto dealership, Leslie Legum had successful careers in leasing, development and even thoroughbred racing. (He owned 1992 Kentucky Derby entry Technology.)

Both Legums were philanthropists, active in the arts and in the Baltimore Jewish community. And of all the art she collected, Mrs. Legum developed perhaps the closest attachment to the works of Chagall, whom she had met.

"Le Petit Concert," which she purchased shortly after it was produced, was, like many of Chagall's paintings, deeply influenced by his Jewish upbringing in western Russia. It was so dear to Mrs. Legum that she had inscribed her initials in a crevice in back, so she could identify it if anything happened to it.

Jeff Legum knew most of this, and before his parents returned home, he had already established a reward for recovery of the paintings. The case received national attention, and police issued pamphlets and a Teletype alert across the country.

The phone calls came in, but no hard leads. In 1977, Leslie Legum decided to hire a private investigator, Frank O'Neil. Mr. O'Neil had worked bank robberies for the FBI for 25 years, and he was the type of agent that old bureau men, graying and faded, could tell stories about without ever getting bored.

A federal judge fondly dubbed him "Cardinal." Not one of the bank robbers he brought in was acquitted. One judge said of him: "I suspect in many cases he thought there wasn't much sense in going through a trial."

Mr. O'Neil retired from the FBI in 1977 and started his own private detective agency in his Parkville home. There was no secretary -- not much of anything really, except a cluttered 8-by-10-foot office with a couple of file cabinets in the basement, next to his wife's sewing machine.

He took the Legum case, even though, as he told his wife, he didn't care for art. He tried his sources, both cops and bad guys, but couldn't locate the paintings. So he started reading, combing through books and articles on art until he ran across a notation about a new effort to register stolen art work.

He tracked down the registry and added the Legums' missing paintings to the list by providing photographs of the art and a police report, though not the Legums' names. Then he hoped for the best.

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