The Artist, the Mafia and Italian Work: Is the Heist Mystery About to be Solved? | Paint
Even after making himself known as one of the most important British artists of the 20th century, Leon Kossoff never got over the distress of losing 14 paintings and six drawings in an unsolved theft.
A much-loved portrait of his mother was among the photos stolen from a truck transporting them from London to Italy in 1972, with some speculating that the Mafia was responsible. Until his death two years ago, he was obsessed with finding them one day, but he never saw them again.
Now, art historians hope that the inclusion of these works in an upcoming major publication will rekindle people’s memories and finally lead to their recovery.
The images of the lost works will be included in a final study, Léon Kossoff: Catalog Raisonné of Oil Paintings, to be published in September.
It is edited by Andrea Rose, former director of visual arts at the British Council, who organized Kossoff’s exhibition at the 1995 Venice Biennale, when he represented Great Britain. She was also a close friend of the artist, an intensely private man who died in 2019 at the age of 92.
She told the Observer: “He was extremely upset by the theft.”
Kossoff, the son of a baker who grew up in east London, was among the figurative painters such as Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach who became part of the School of London. Inspired by the Old Masters, he captured city life in expressionist paintings, with swathes of thick impasto paint and a dark palette. He once said: “London, like the paint I use, seems to be in my blood.
His subjects included post-war bomb and construction sites, crowded swimming pools, and portraits of family and friends.
Despite major exhibitions at the Tate and the National Gallery in London, as well as international exhibitions, he never forgets the stolen works created during his establishment. Several were important paintings and had been shown in his solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, before being sent to his first solo exhibition in Italy, at the Galleria del Girasole in Udine, in August 1972.
The truck went all the way to Rome – only to disappear after being left overnight in a parking lot with the driver staying in a nearby guesthouse.
Rose said: “The next morning the truck was gone and was later found 17 miles away… The locks on the back door had been broken and all the cardboard boxes had been opened. All of Kossoff’s paintings and drawings had been stolen. There were a few other items in the truck, including a bronze sculpture and a 16th century painting. None of these had been deleted.
She added: “There has been speculation about what could have happened to the paintings, involving the Italian Mafia in London, but none of this is provable. At the time of the theft, Kossoff was a rising star in the British painting world, but his works had never been exhibited in Italy before and so he was not a well-known name in Italy.
The paints would have been particularly heavy, in part because Kossoff used lead paint at the time. It would have taken two men to carry them. Another truck must have been involved.
None of the works have been seen since, despite investigations by police and insurers.
Besides the portrait of his mother, Woman sitting in an armchair, which was painted in 1965, other stolen works include Nude on a Red Bed, Winter 1970-71, one in a series of paintings by his wife Peggy – described by Rose as a “non-sentimental but very affectionate” image.
It also lacks its Portrait of David, summer 1970, a tender representation of his then adolescent son. David said yesterday of his father: “The mysterious disappearance of these paintings and drawings – especially his mother’s large painting, which he believed to be one of his best works – has disturbed him all his life.
The Italian exhibition was curated by Lou Klepac, who later became curator and deputy director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia. He remains perplexed by the theft because Kossoff was not known in Italy and, even in Great Britain, his works changed hands then for only a few hundred pounds. Now they are reporting seven digits.
He said: “Today, if you sent paintings by Kossoff [somewhere], you would need an armed guard. At the time, Leon’s work was not popular with anyone.
He wonders if the thieves, perhaps linked to the Mafia, thought the truck contained valuable goods, to be disappointed.
Most of the stolen works had been photographed before their disappearance, which made it possible to reproduce them in the catalog raisonné, which will be published by Modern Art Press on September 30.
The publication coincides with a major retrospective exhibition at Annely Juda Fine Art, London, which will travel to New York and Los Angeles in early 2022.