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October 24, 2010

Sunday, October 24, 2010 - , 1 comment

Courbet Painting Stolen from Swansea Still Missing After 53 years

By Catherine Schofield Sezgin

October 24th is the 53rd anniversary of the theft of a Courbet seascape stolen from an art gallery in Swansea, Wales. Coast Scene with Cliffs and Breaking Waves was on loan to the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery’s for a traveling exhibition when it disappeared on a Friday morning while the gallery was open.

INTERPOL, the international police organization, reports the painting as the earliest of the stolen Courbet paintings in its database of stolen works of art that has been publishing such information since 1947. INTERPOL has allowed online access to this database to “reduce illicit trade” since August 2009.

The 19th century painting is described as a “dark picture, depicting a leaden cloudy sky and dark green sea.” The 24 by 18 inch (60 by 45 centimeter) oil painting, which at the time was estimated to be valued at 3,000 to 5,000 pounds, was one of 33 paintings included in the exhibition French Painting from Romanticism to Realism: Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier, Eugene Delacroix, Jean-François Millet and Carle Venet. The theft occurred one week before the exhibit was scheduled to close.

The painting’s absence was noted during a routine inspection when the empty frame was found. Police investigators speculated that the work could have been smuggled out in a satchel between 10 and noon on that Friday morning when a staff member left the room. The police dusted the abandoned frame for fingerprints although they had originally hoped that the theft had been a prank and that the painting would be returned over the weekend.

The painting had been on loan to the art gallery for two months. The owner of the painting, David C. T. Thomas, a London-Welshman, told a reporter in 1957 that he had purchased the work in 1955 from a London dealer, and that the painting had been the most valuable of his small collection. The painting was in the collection of “A. Paroissen” until it was sold at Christie’s London in July, 1894, the Evening Post reported, and the painting is signed “G. Courbet.”

Gustave Courbet, the son of a prosperous vintner and landowner, pursued painting outside of academic training. Courbet spent six weeks in Etretat in the late summer of 1869, during which he earned commissions from either his dealers, or his clients, who were “hoping to obtain the work of a famous place by a famous artist.” He painted 14 canvases showing Etretat’s cliffs and several dozen views of the sea. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris has two seascapes painted in 1970, “La falaise d’Etretat après l’orage” (“Cliff at Etretat after a Storm”) and “La Vague” (“The Wave”).

The stolen painting is not easily traced in the publications about Courbet’s works. Patricia Pate Havlice’s World Painting Index, published in 1977, does not list the titles of either “Coast Scene with Cliffs and Breaking Waves” (all the titles are in English) or “Leaden Sky Over a Raging Sea.” Robert Fernier’s “Vie et l’oeuvre de Gustave Courbet: catalogue raisonné”, published by the Wildenstein Foundation in 1978, also published more than 20 years after the theft, does not include an image that would match the painting stolen from the Welsh gallery that was sold in London in the 1950s. If it is difficult to trace the provenance of the painting, how difficult would it be to identify the painting today?

The thief did not have to be an art dealer or historian to know that the painting was valuable. The curator of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery had written in an article in the local newspaper, the Evening Post, “It would not be an exaggeration to say that never have so many masterpieces been brought together within its walls before.” The missing painting was described as “one of the greatest examples of landscape painting,” according to the Evening Post. Why did the thief steal only the Courbet and not the other famous works of art? Did (s)he have a special attachment to that particular painting, or was it easier to steal than the others?

The newspapers reported on the theft with headlines, such as “Masterpiece is Stolen in Swansea” (Evening Post, October 25, 1957); “Did a Fanatic Steal the Painting? Difficult to sell work by well-known artist” (Evening Post, October 26); “Art gallery masterpiece stolen” (Evening Post, October 26); and “Search goes on for picture thief” (Evening Post, October 28). An image of the painting was also published in the Evening Post on October 30 under the title “Leaden Sky over a Raging Sea.”

INTERPOL’s stolen art works database features two other missing seascapes: “La Mer” stolen from Rochefort, Switzerland in August 1992, and “Coastal Landscape in North of France” (painted in 1866) stolen from Kilchberg, Switzerland in January 2008. Eight other Courbet paintings have been reported stolen to Interpol: a self-portrait in 1971 from Italy; the head of a youth from France in 1981; a "Standing Man" from Switzerland in 1984; a "Shot Deer" from Slovenia in 2010; and four landscapes (Canada in 1972; France in 1997; Paraguay in 2002; and Switzerland in 2008).

The Courbet landscape stolen from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1972 had been publicized as a valuable painting in the newspapers before the nighttime robbery of the museum when three men entered an unsecured skylight and stole more than 18 paintings – including works by Daumier, Delacroix, and Millet.

The website Art Theft Central (Courbet Painting Recovered, December 3, 2009) cited a report from the Associated Press that the French police had found a Courbet painting stolen in 2004, “The Wave”, at the house of an employee from the Paris auction house, Hôtel Drouot. At the time, “The Wave” was not listed as stolen by INTERPOL.


Herbert, Robert L. “Monet on the Normandy Coast: Tourism and Painting, 1867-1886.” Yale University Press, 1996.

INTERPOL, stolen works of art database,

Fernier, Robert. Vie et l’oeuvre de Gustave Courbet: catalogue raisonné. Tome II, Pentures: 1866-1877, Fondation Wildenstein, 1978.

“Masterpiece is Stolen in Swansea,” Evening Post, October 25, 1957.

“Did a Fanatic Steal the Painting?”, Evening Post, October 26, 1957.

"Search goes on for picture thief," Evening Post, October 28, 1957.

"Art Gallery masterpiece stolen," Evening Post, October 26, 1957.

"Missing Painting," Evening Post, October 30, 1957.


See also:
'Painting by Courbet stolen', The Times October 26, 1957
'Search for painting', The Times October 30, 1957