„As my former colleague likes to say, art does not disappear. It just changes place,“ Linda Lainvoo, chief inspector of art heritage at the National Heritage Board. And although most stories of „changing place“ have no ending, i.e. the stolen object will never be recovered, there are some success stories.
The interior decoration of the Rootsi-Mihkli (St. Michael's Swedish) Church in Tallinn Old Town was evacuated during Second World War and reached the National Art Museum collections in 1983. While our modern idea of an art museum includes sophisticated security systems and manned guard, the reality was quite different those days.
The museum depot had a single nightwatchman, who guarded the key cupboard, including the keys of the art depot. The depot was burglarized in 1987 and the pulpit support of the Rootsi-Mihkli Church, a statue of Moses, was one of the stolen objects.
Some 30 years later, in February 2015, Juta Kivimäe, an expert in modern art, called Lainvoo. “She said that a strange wooden sculpture was brought for assessment. The owner believed it had been carved by Amandus Adamson, but it was clearly not his work,” the chief inspector recalled.
As Lainvoo saw the photograph, she was quite sure that it was a Baroque sculpture, possibly by Christian Ackermann. “I started to study my records and was suddenly shocked as I saw the photo of the same sculpture,” Lainvoo said.
Since the pre-war photograph of the pulpit support was not just well preserved but also highly detailed, it became immediately clear that the figure was the same sculpture, which had been stolen back in the 1980s.
The owner, who had brought the sculpture to Kivimäe for studying, allegedly knew nothing of the theft and since the crime had happened a long time ago, it was decided to accept that a valuable piece of heritage had been recovered. The figure of Moses has by now returned to the Rootsi-Mihkli Church.
Yet the returning sculpture offered another surprise to the experts, While the statue had been painted before theft, someone had subsequently removed all the paint for some reason. “As we cleaned and treated the statue, a wartime bullet was found in it. A weapons specialist ascertained that the status had probably been hit during combat action in 1944 as it had been removed from the church. Experts determined that the bullet had been fired from a German Mauser rifle.
Lainvoo said that a lost piece of heritage is generally found approximately once a year. Considering that the register of stolen works of art, which was founded in 2011, contains a total of 653 entries (mostly icons), it does not seem a very positive outcome. Yet the national heritage protectors are happy for even that.