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- better than rubble -

Museum's Stolen Chagall, or a Good Fake, Turns Up in Topeka Mail.
(from the New York Times)

In the shadowy world of art theft, it was a case to boggle the imagination. In June, a small painting by Marc Chagall was stolen from the Jewish Museum in Manhattan. A confounding ransom note later said the painting would not be returned unless there was peace in the Middle East.

But yesterday, a painting that may be the original Chagall was on its way to Manhattan from an unlikely source of international intrigue -- a postal center in Topeka, Kan. The authorities said the discovery had been made by a postal employee who had opened a package that had been deemed undeliverable.

''It was pure luck,'' said Jeff Lanza, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Kansas City, Mo.

Elisabeth Batchelor, the director of conservation at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, who inspected the painting yesterday, said: ''Chagalls are easily faked, but this doesn't look like a fake. It looks like it is not damaged, and it's a miracle it survived the mail.''

If the painting in Kansas City turns out to be the real thing, the return of Chagall's 1914 ''Study for 'Over Vitebsk,' '' an 8-by-10-inch painting valued at $1 million, will resolve only part of the mystery that has beset the Jewish Museum since the work was removed from a second-floor gallery on June 7.

According to Mr. Lanza and an F.B.I. spokesman in New York, Joseph Valiquette, the pursuit of the thief continues, and whatever evidence was recovered in Kansas provides only a cool trail. And authentication of the painting can be completed only when it is returned to Manhattan.

''We are very hopeful, but need to wait,'' said Anne Scher, a spokeswoman for the Jewish Museum. She said yesterday that museum officials expected the painting to arrive within a few days.

In contrast to the intrigue of the painting's disappearance, its discovery in Kansas resulted from an altogether mundane application of common sense.

Mr. Lanza said the painting thought to be ''Study for 'Over Vitebsk' '' was discovered about 10 days ago by the postal employee, who was opening pieces of mail that had been classified as undeliverable because their addresses could not be deciphered or did not exist. Mr. Lanza said the employee was working in an unclaimed-property division of the Topeka building.

He said the painting was in a normal-looking package, wrapped in paper, and had first been deemed undeliverable at a postal center in St. Paul, Minn., before being sent on to Topeka. Mr. Lanza and Mr. Valiquette both declined to reveal the address that was on the package.

The authorities also declined to identify the postal employee who had opened the package. But they said the employee had displayed unusual investigative zeal.

''The employee saw it was a painting, but didn't know what it was,'' Mr. Lanza said. Because the painting was in a frame, he said, the employee thought there might be something else hidden behind the frame's cardboard backing, and started to remove it for further inspection.

At that point, Mr. Lanza said, the employee noticed several gallery and museum stickers on the back of the painting. The employee then logged on to a computer, found the F.B.I.'s Web page on stolen art -- which displayed a photograph of the stolen Chagall -- and called the bureau's Kansas City office.

Ms. Batchelor said F.B.I. agents, who had wrapped the painting in a towel for protection, brought it to her for inspection. It appears to be the original Chagall, she said, a whimsical study of a beggar floating over snow-covered rooftops in the painter's Russian hometown, because cracking revealed its age.

When it disappeared in June, ''Study for 'Over Vitebsk' '' was part of a Jewish Museum exhibition titled ''Marc Chagall: Early Works from Russian Collections.'' More than 50 people had mingled among nearly 60 works by the artist, sipping wine and eating kosher hors d'oeuvres at a reception on the evening of June 7.

But the next day, after the painting was discovered missing, the only hard evidence was a small screw on the museum floor showing that it had been pulled with force from the wall.

The investigation took an unexpected turn when Jewish Museum officials received a ransom note.

The letter was postmarked in the Bronx on June 12, and signed by an organization the authorities said they had never heard of, the International Committee for Art and Peace. It demanded peace between Israel and the Palestinians as a condition for the painting's return.

Mr. Valiquette said yesterday that the available evidence provided no further indication whether an international group with political aspirations was involved in the theft, or whether any group called the International Committee for Art and Peace even existed.

But he said investigators were not ruling it out.

''Obviously, the investigation is still going on,'' he said. ''The fact that a very similar painting has turned up gives us another avenue.

''We also have a very unique ransom note that so far has not provided much progress in the investigation, but it is still being pursued,'' Mr. Valiquette said.

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