By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
People love the art of Salvador Dali. Some people like to steel it, too.
The latest caper made international headlines just days ago: police in Beirut, Lebanon, arrested four people who were trying to sell a stolen 1954 Dali oil titled “Portrait of Mrs. James Reeves” (not “Reese,” as at least one book author erroneously spelled it).
The plan was reportedly to sell the stunning 58 inch x 36 inch canvas for $5 million to a Lebanese woman residing in France.
But like a Dalinian burning giraffe, the deal went up in flames.
This most recent case of purloined Salvador Dali artwork reminds me of what was clearly the most outrageous and unlikely theft ever of a Dali painting. The work in question was the huge and beautiful canvas, “Tuna Fishing,” (1967-1968), which is some 12 feet long and 10 feet high.
The theft occurred in 1973, stunning the art world and its private owners, the Paul Ricard Foundation, headquartered on the Isle of Bendor in the Mediterranean, off the coast of south eastern France.
How such an immense work could have been stolen defies explanation, though it was presumably an easier task than it would have been had “Tuna Fishing” been hung in the more protective, less penetrable environment of a museum.
It is known, however, that the painting was removed from its stretcher bars and rolled up like a rug – obviously no way to treat a precious and delicate painting.
The work went missing for a dozen years.
When I first met Salvador Dali at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City in 1973 – the same year “Tuna Fishing” vanished – I asked the Master if it had been found yet. He shrugged the question off with a dismissive “No,” making it clear he had zero interest in talking about it.
I since came to learn that Dali really never much liked to talk about his long-finished works (unless it was for TV cameras). Instead, he was always effusive and passionate about talking about the projects he was working on now, today – as well as his vision for new ideas not yet realized but incubating in his incredibly creative mind.
Meanwhile, some years after that encounter with Dali at his winter home at the St. Regis, it was learned that “Tuna Fishing” had been recovered. Where? In a place that one might consider fittingly surreal: a hangar at Orly airport in Paris. The masterpiece was ingloriously leaning against a wall, rolled like a common carpet.
The Paul Ricard Foundation had promptly vowed never to lend the work for any exhibition. Their policy was understandable. It was a case of once-burned, twice-shy.
But it left a distinct void in various retrospectives of Dali in Europe, America and elsewhere.
So Dali admirers were beyond grateful when that seemingly inflexible policy was eventually changed. “Tuna Fishing” – after so many years in sequestration – made a triumphant return to a public exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. It has since been shown in several other public venues as well.