Real Name: The Paintings of Ben Stahl
Nicknames: No Known Nicknames
Location: Sarasota, Florida
Date: April 17, 1969
Details: Ben Stahl was an American painter with fifty national awards who created fifteen paintings depicting scenes of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He opened the Museum of the Cross in his hometown of Sarasota, Florida in 1965, which housed the paintings. The images had been published in a 1954 special edition of the bible. Due to the success of the images, Ben decided to create full paintings of each scene, adding the resurrection as the fifteenth painting.
On April 17, 1969, an unknown group of thieves broke into the museum through the fire door and stole the complete series of paintings. The paintings were not insured because of the exorbitant cost and the low probability of possible theft. The thieves also stole expensive crucifix jewelry from the display cases, yet left behind two very expensive Macintosh sound systems. The thieves were very methodical in the crime, removing the paintings tack by tack from their frames.
They were never caught, and it is now believed that the artworks could possibly be hidden away in some private collection away from public view, possibly without the owners knowing they are stolen. The statute of limitations ran out on the theft. Over the years, rumors have placed the paintings in the Bahamas, South America, Brazil, and different parts of the United States. Sadly, Ben passed away in 1987 without ever finding his paintings. Now, Ben Stahl's children want to find the paintings to pay tribute to their father.
Suspects: No known suspects; police believe at least three people were involved. Witnesses recalled seeing a white van parked at the museum overnight, but no fingerprints were ever found inside, indicating the thieves were very experienced. Although the FBI became involved, their involvement was cursory, and they never kept a record of the stolen artworks.
Six weeks after the theft, investigators received a tip from a man claiming to be a Catholic priest. He claimed that a man had approached him at his church, claiming to be one of the people that had stolen the paintings.The alleged thief demanded $1 million for the paintings. However, the lead did not pan out; the priest did not give his name and eventually stopped contacting investigators.
Robert Seinstream of the Seinstream Gallery in Boca Raton, Florida claimed to Stahl's son, David, that he had seen the paintings in storage at the Museum of Fort Lauderdale, but this tip was never followed. The files on the original robbery investigation were reportedly lost in a fire at the sheriff's department, but another source claimed they were lost by a flood. There are no records of either incident.
Eventually, David Stahl was linked by a friend he knew to an informant who said the paintings were stolen by a figure known only as "Travis Rausch" aided by two other men. On his own, Stahl has been privately following every lead, but without the assistance of the Sheriff's Department and the FBI, he is limited in the scope of his investigation. While the FBI sometimes dispose of unsolved cases, several retired FBI agents confide that disposal is not routine and should be suspect.
Extra Notes: This case originally ran on the April 7, 1993 episode. It was also covered on ABC NewsPrimetime Live.
Results: Unsolved. Ben's children are offering a reward for the safe return of his paintings. Since the statute of limitations has run out on the theft, anyone who might have unknowingly bought the stolen paintings will not face prosecution.
- Ben Stahl Painting Thief on Unsolved.com
- The Museum of the Cross website
- Ben Stahl on Wikipedia
- $1.5 Million In Art Taken From Artist
- Undaunted, Stahl Says He Will Reopen
- Substitutes Arrive for Stolen Paintings
- The Stations of the Cross Artist’s son continues to search for stolen paintings depicting Christ’s final hours
- 4-decade-old Sarasota art heist reinvestigated
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- Sarasota history: Art heist remains unsolved