1965. St Luke, a painting by Hals, was stolen from the Pushkin Museum of art in Moscow before the opening day of the Dutch Art exhibit. See previous post for the beginning of the story.
While the army of detectives, KGB operatives and Moscow militia searched for St Luke far and near (mostly far), the anxious thief, indeed, was panicking right under their noses.
While everyone was looking for a rogue criminal, ruthless and evil, 26 year old Valery Volkov was neither.
He dreamed of becoming an artist, studying at the Surikov School of Art but was denied acceptance. His desire to belong to the world of art was so strong that he forged a diploma and got a job at the restoration lab of the Pushkin Museum. To his girlfriend he introduced himself as a successful young artist. He treated her so well that soon found himself head over the hill in debt.
Volkov decided it was about time to improve his circumstances. A close friend of his, a lot more resourceful fellow, suggested Volkov should take advantage of his close proximity to the works of great masters. This alone might one day make him rich!
And Volkov did. It was simple, really. When no one was looking — and no one was — he cut one of the “Odessa canvas” out of its frame, just like that, with a blunt knife. In heist, he hardly noticed what exactly was his loot, and walked away with it hidden under his coat. Only to return to work the next day and find that all hell broke loose.
As every single museum employee, he was questioned by detectives. Volkov managed to feign disbelief and innocence convincingly enough, no worse than any other of his disbelieving and innocent coworkers.
Where was St Luke all this time? Behind a wood burning stove in the house of Volkov’s girlfriend, tightly rolled up. Hapless thief had no idea what to do with it next. His hopes to profit from his crime was quickly fading: to find a buyer for the painting was the task beyond impossible. The robbery that kept KGB and militia on their collective toes virtually disseminated an underground art market, and visiting foreign art dealers were kept under the watchful eye of so many agents.
Valery Volkov grew increasingly desperate, stress drove him to a breaking point in the relationship with his girlfriend. St Luke must be either removed from its hiding place and disposed of, hopefully both, after 5 months baking to a crust behind the stove.
Since no trace of the paining was yet discovered, this crime would never have been solved if not for luck that turned its back on anxious thief. After yet another quarrel with his girlfriend, Volkov resolved to find a buyer, hopefully some random monied foreigner, to dump the painting.
On the lookout for the suitable foreigner, he came across a person that looked like one. The gentleman was dressed up to the nines in brand clothes, smelled of expensive cologne, his Gucci shoes shone and he had this special “foreign” sheen that was a clear giveaway.
Volkov risked approaching the gentlemen and offering to sell a painting of a master “of Rembrandt quality”, in his own words. He asked for a 100,000 rubles — an unheard of sum in those times.
The man replied that he was not interested in art, however, he might be able to find a buyer. They agreed to meet the next day. Little did Volkov know: a person he mistook for a foreigner was an employee of the German Embassy, the Russian fellow and, as it often happened, a clandestine KGB agent, although not directly involved in the case. What luck! Not for the thief, obviously.
The pseudo-foreigner immediately notified the agency of his encounter with Volkov. KGB operatives instantly developed a script for a clandestine operations to catch a thief, the Hals’ picture in hand.
The “transaction” was to take place on August 28 in a designated place. KGB agent, posing as a buyer, arrived in a foreign car and wearing designer suit. Volkov explained that the paining must be retrieved from its hiding place and suggested “the buyer” followed him. Increasingly nervous, he quickened his pace, zigzagging through the alleys. However, numerous agents, variously and imaginatively disguised, weren’t far behind Volkov and his “client.”
In the dark alley Volkov disappeared. The agents panicked, thinking he’d escaped, but shortly afterward Volkov reappeared carrying an elongated box.
In a blink, Volkov was detained. The box, examined immediately, contained the canvas tube. Badly damaged from exposure to heat, with horizontal cracks and creases from being rolled up, it was St Luke nonetheless.
Canvas was almost completely destroyed due to poor storage conditions. First, he is recognized as irretrievably lost, but then the restoration effort brought St Luke back to life again. The painting was returned to the Odessa museum and put on display, next to St Matthew.
The stills in this post courtesy of a documentary about the case and the last one is from the Russian movie “Return of St Luke”, which is highly fictional, and shown to the public without any mention that is was based on a true crime story.
It was, indeed, a well kept secret. Until now.