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Inquiry resumes into Easter art heist

“Jesus is Condemned To Death” and other paintings were stolen days after Easter in 1969.

Associated Press

“Jesus is Condemned To Death” and other paintings were stolen days after Easter in 1969.

SARASOTA, Fla. — On an April evening nearly 44 years ago, just days after Easter Sunday, someone slipped into a museum in Sarasota and stole 15 paintings, one portraying the resurrected Jesus and 14 depicting the Stations of the Cross.

Now, a Sarasota County Sheriff’s detective is reinvestigating the decades-old disappearance of the art.

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‘‘Those paintings could be anywhere in the world,’’ said Detective Kim McGath.

All of the paintings were done by artist, illustrator, and author Ben Stahl, who died in 1987. He was well known in the 1950s and ’60s for being a prolific and well-compensated illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post and for creating movie posters and book covers. ‘‘Ben Hur’’ and the 25th anniversary edition of ‘‘Gone With The Wind’’ were among the movie posters; ‘‘Madame Bovary’’ was one of his limited-edition book illustrations. He was also one of the first professors at the Famous Artists School, a correspondence course in art once advertised on the back of matchbooks.

Stahl, who was from Chicago, wrote and illustrated ‘‘Blackbeard’s Ghost,’’ which was made into a 1968 Disney film.

Commissioned to illustrate a Bible for the Catholic Press in the mid-1950s, Stahl painted the 14 Stations of the Cross. Later, he decided to paint larger versions, along with a 15th painting titled ‘‘The Resurrection,’’ because he wanted his work to end on a positive note. All 15 paintings were 6 feet by 9 feet, and painted in oil.

In 1965, Stahl and his wife moved to Sarasota and decided to open a museum for the large-scale paintings. Called ‘‘The Museum of the Cross,’’ it was one of the main tourist attractions in the area at the time.

Whoever stole the paintings and other pieces of art in the predawn hours of April 16, 1969, must have known what they were doing, said McGath, because they carefully removed each of the tacks that attached the canvases to the frames.

At the time, officials said they had no clues. One officer theorized the works might be held for ransom. One witness remembered seeing a white van near the museum that night, while Stahl recalled two visitors from South America who asked odd questions in the days prior to the theft.

Interpol spokeswoman Nicole Navas said this week that officials recently sent out a message to all 190 Interpol member countries in an attempt to renew interest in the case, which she said is one of 500 open art heist cases being investigated by the agency.

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