One evening last June, during a cocktail reception for some 200 invited guests at the Jewish Museum in New York, a person or persons unknown slipped into the gallery and made off with a painting by the artist Marc Chagall valued at more than $1 million.
The brazenness of the theft baffled museum officials and the authorities, who didn't discover the crime until the next morning. But they were even more disconcerted a few days later when a neatly typed ransom note arrived by mail.
The painting, the 1914 work titled Study for "Over Vitebsk," was "being taken care of," the letter asserted, and it would be returned unharmed on one condition: a peaceful end to the bloody, decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
The note was signed by a hitherto unknown group calling itself the International Committee for Art and Peace; it gave no indication whether the writer favored the Palestinian or the Israeli cause.
The demand caught museum officials and authorities off-guard. Traditionally, the most common motive in thefts of artworks has been monetary gain. Here, apparently, was a rare case of art being stolen for political ends.
The puzzle was compounded by the plainly irrational character of the demand. What, after all, could a museum do regarding a dispute that has flummoxed the world's most powerful governments, aid organizations and private groups for the better part of 50 years?
Some observers therefore dismissed the note as a hoax, even though authorities were convinced that whoever wrote it almost certainly had knowledge of the painting's whereabouts.
But there are several ways of interpreting the note. One, of course, is that whoever took the painting has no intention of returning it, given the seemingly interminable nature of the Middle East imbroglio.
Or it could be read as evidence of a curiously regressive, primitive belief in the power of images to effect miraculous changes in the world. People have often ascribed magical powers to images, and even in the modern era, avant-garde artists have issued fulsome manifestos promoting the idea that art, by itself, can make society better.
Or perhaps whoever stole the painting and wrote the ransom note might have conceived of the act as a work of art itself -- a kind of quirky, postmodern performance in the manner of Brechtian political theater, which, by unmasking illusion and artifice, provokes its audience to radical action.
The powers of art
We may never know the true motives of the thieves -- stolen art can disappear into the hands of renegade collectors only to show up decades, even centuries, later. But without making light of either the seriousness of the crime or the Middle East conflict itself, it is intriguing to speculate about the various possible meanings attached to artworks that are suggested by this curious episode.
In his authoritative study The Power of Images, historian David Freedberg lists many ways in which people have attributed magical or supernatural powers to works of art. In 16th-century Italy, for example, it was widely believed that merely looking at pleasing pictures would cause pregnant women to bear well-formed offspring.
Similarly, beautiful pictures were thought to enhance couples' lovemaking, inspire religious devotion, ward off illnesses and even ease the passage of condemned prisoners from this world to the next. Freedberg reports that members of local fraternal orders would accompany those about to be executed from their cells to the scaffold while holding before them small devotional images, called tavolette, intended to calm the victims and resign them to their fate.
Belief in the magical powers of images goes back to the primitive worship of idols, believed to be vessels inhabited by spirits from the supernatural world. Later, faith in the miraculous efficacy of images was transferred to the relics of martyred saints and to sacred objects, such as cups, chalices and priestly vestments, used in religious ceremonies.
To steal such an object was to abscond not only with a costly material thing but also with the spiritual power it embodied. (That the stolen artwork in New York was by a Jewish artist -- though one who clearly transgressed his religion's prohibition against graven images -- and that it was taken from a Jewish museum suggests the perpetrators hoped to use its power against Israel. But that still leaves open the question whether the thieves might be Palestinian militants or disaffected Jews hoping to enlist support in pressuring the Sharon government.)