THE MYSTERY OF THE STOLEN PAINTINGS OF CHRIST
When Ben Stahl established a luxurious studio on Siesta Key, Florida in 1952, he was one of the most famous illustrators in America. Even Norman Rockwell, an illustrator also lionized by the Saturday Evening Post, paid tribute to Stahl in a letter to him in 1968 “The rest of us are just illustrators, but you are among the masters and I am filled with admiration.”
For thirty years, Stahl’s work was featured in national magazines. He illustrated 750 covers and story illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post averaging three paintings a month and sometimes illustrating two stories in one issue. One of the illustrated serials for which he is best known is “Commodore Hornblower” by C.S. Forester (author of the novel the African Queen which was adapted into the 1951 movie with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn).
When magazines began to fail in the 1960s concurrent with the increasing popularity of television. Ben Stahl, an arts visionary, master illustrator and easel painter began a most successful and lucrative mixed media career.
He began his career working for the Chicago Daily News as an illustrator and eventually contracted illustration assignments for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Today’s Women, Woman’s Home Companion, Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, American Weekly, The Chicago Tribune Magazine, Art Digest, American Artist, Country Gentleman and Coronet.
In addition, he did the illustrations for national advertising campaigns for clients such as John Hancock, Bell Aircobra, International Silver, Coca Cola, Packard Motor Company and others; acquiring more than 25 national art director awards.
Stahl was co-founder of the largest school in the world in 1949; the Famous Artist Schools of Westport, CT and later the Famous Schools International, which was listed on the New York stock exchange (FS) and had offices and faculty in Amsterdam, Chicago, London, Munich, Paris, Sydney, Tokyo, Toronto, Washington DC and Westport, CT where Stahl was presently living. Stahl was the author of the textbook for the painting course. The faculty and co-founders included: Norman Rockwell, Harold Von Schmidt, Irving Penn, Red Smith, Rod Serling, Fletcher Martin, Arnold Blanche, Doris Lee, Bennet Cerf, Richard Avedon, Max Schulman, Al Capp, Willard Mullin, Will Barnet, Rube Goldberg, Syd Solomon, Joseph Hirsh, Julian Levy and others.
Stahl and his wife Ella had been visiting Sarasota, Florida, in the winter since 1939 where Ella’s father was a real estate agent. Stahl found he could work as easily in Florida as in Westport, CT and in 1952 they contracted Sarasota School of Architecture, architect Victory Lundy to build a house and art studio on Siesta Key overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. They entertained lavishly the members of Sarasota’s arts community.
His neighbor on Siesta Key, Mackinlay Kantor, who after returning from a trip to the Costa del Sol suggested to Stahl that he and Ella might like living there. The Stahls and their two small children moved to Torremolinos, Spain in 1956. At the time, Stahl was working on the Coca Cola account for a New York ad agency and continually flew back and forth from Spain to New York. Considered part of the international jet set milieu in Torremolinos, they attended parties with Ernest Hemingway, Timothy Leary and Jacque Cousteau. They returned in 1958.
Almost immediately upon returning to Sarasota, the US Air Force commissioned Stahl to sketch activities at the US Air Force Bases in the Far East and gave him the temporary rank of Brigadier General. Along with Eric Von Schmidt (son of Harold Von Schmidt) they toured Japan, Thailand, Formosa, Bangkok and the Philippines. The paintings from that tour depict the everyday life of the Air Force in Asia, and now hang in the Pentagon and at the Air Force Academy in Annapolis, MD.
While in Hong Kong, he discovered a little Chinese girl who played the piano by ear—prodigy Ginny Tiu. Stahl arranged for her to come to America—she was a sensation and consequently appeared on Ed Sullivan Show and almost every other television and radio show in the United States. “She was like a little doll. Ginny had to stand up to play, as the keys were level with her nose. And she was playing a Beethoven sonata. Five years old.” Stahl said later.
In 1958, Stahl was commissioned by MGM Studios to create six religious paintings to promote the movie Ben Hur starring Charlton Heston. Universal Studios contracted Stahl for paintings included on the sets and promotion for the Oscar winning film of 1960 Song Without End starring Dirk Bogarde and Capucine.
Upon his return to Sarasota he began writing and illustrating a children’s book titled Blackbeard’s Ghost. As the book progressed he read each chapter to his friends, writer John D. MacDonald and Jon Corbino for their comments.
While the book was still in manuscript, he took it to Hollywood when he was commissioned to paint a full-length nude portrait of co-star Ursula Andress for the 1963 film 4 for Texas starring Frank Sinatra.
With typical bravura, Stahl called Walt Disney, whom he had never met, and was invited to lunch at the studio. “He greeted me as if we were old friends and I gave him the manuscript,” Stahl recalled. “Three days later Disney called and said they wanted to buy it. That same day my agent in New York called to tell me that Houghton Mifflin had bought the book”. As a result the movie became a box office success starring Peter Ustinov and the book was published in hardcover and paperback in English, Spanish and French editions. The book won The Sequoia National Award for children’s books in 1969. Later Stahl wrote a sequel titled The Secret of Red Scull in 1971.
For many years Stahl had been painting another series of The Stations of the Cross. When he finished the fifteen large 9 x 6 foot easel paintings in 1965, he opened The Museum of the Cross, in Sarasota, Florida.
Norman Vincent Peale wrote to Stahl in 1969, “The visit to your museum was an unforgettable experience; the beautiful and spiritual quality of those paintings are etched on our hearts forever.
The Museum of the Cross made national headlines in 1969 when the fifteen monumental canvases were stolen in a bizarre state-of-the-art crime that has never been solved. It was the second largest art theft of the decade, with the value being assessed at over $1.5 million dollars (1969 dollars). In 1993 the robbery was reenacted on the television show Unsolved Mysteries.
Even though Ben's son, David Stahl has provided in recent years, photos of the lost works to the FBI, and contrary to official FBI documents stating that the art has been listed with IFAR, as of June 1995, IFAR warrants that no listing has ever been made by the FBI.
David Stahl, on his own and with the aid of a local contacts as been able to uncover reliable information about a theft that is over twenty-five years old (now over 35 years old). However, Stahl has suffered the consequences of stirring up the case from those who would wish to keep the matter quiet.
There is unproven speculation that one of the supposed thieves had informant connections to the FBI or to Sheriff's detective Townsend. According to investigators and producers at ABC News PrimeTime Live, that same individual has unproven allegations of being involved in some way with the Martin Luther King assassination. While considerable circumstantial evidence does exist to substantiate the association with the King assassination, the evidence does not fully prove this allegation.
There are numerous other facts discovered in Stahl's research that show a lack of "interest" by law enforcement to investigate any aspect of the theft.
Clearly the following questions need to be connected with answers:
The theft that brought an end to the Museum of the Cross is still unsolved and without any major leads. However, the massive and inspirational paintings are still out there somewhere, perhaps held by a collector or religious group who may not even know that they are stolen. The Stahl family has offered a significant reward for information leading to the recovery of the paintings.
“I want my paintings to excite the senses. I was never one for fine detail. I always try to get to the guts of a painting — to line and form. To me, Art is a search for vital arrangements of line and form that trigger an emotional response.” - Ben Stahl 1910-1987
A FEW OF BEN STAHL'S AWARDS:
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