The History Of
The Museum Of The Cross


I. Introduction

As an artist, Ben Stahl has won more than 50 national awards including theSaltus Gold Medal from the National Academy of Design. He was a co-founder of the largest school in the world, The Famous Artist Schools and Famous Schools International, which was established in the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia.

Stahl traveled the world on commissions for many national magazines, and with the temporary rank of brigadier general, toured the Far East for the U.S. Air Force. 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.

Stahl is listed in "Who's Who in America", "The Blue Book" (London), Dictionary of International Biography", "Who's Who in American Art", "The Painter's Hall of Fame", "Who's Who in the East", "Who's Who in the World", and "Men of Achievement". Stahl was elected to the Illustrator's Hall of Fame in 1974 and was a member of the Society of Illustrators, Artists and Writers Club and the Player's Club, all of New York City.

In thirty years he illustrated over 750 stories for the "Saturday Evening Post", and many books including limited editions of "Madam Bovary", "Little Women" and the 25th anniversary edition of "Gone With The Wind" which hang as part of the permanent collection of the Atlanta Library.

In addition to the many advertising campaigns for clients such as John Hancock Life Insurance Co., Bell Aircobra, International Silver and others, he was commissioned by MGM Studios to create works to promote the film "Ben Hur". Other film commissions include; "Two for Texas" and "Song Without End" from Universal Studios.

At the age of sixteen, Stahl was exhibiting in the International Watercolor Show at the Art Institute of Chicago where he later taught and lectured. He also taught at the American Academy of Art, The N.Y. Art Student's League, Brooklyn's Pratt Institute and numerous universities across the country. His paintings are included in museum collections throughout the world.

In 1965, his first book, "Blackbeard's Ghost" was published by Houghton Mifflin Co. and was translated into Spanish and French. In 1969 it was made into a movie by Walt Disney. The sequel to "Blackbeard's Ghost" was "The Secret of Red Skull", also published by Houghton Mifflin.

In 1976, Stahl was asked to produce 26 half hour programs entitled "Journey Into Art" for the South Carolina Educational TV Network. The series aired nationally several times on PBS.

II. Museum of the Cross History

In 1965, Stahl opened the Museum of the Cross in his hometown of Sarasota,Florida. The idea for the museum came from his wife Ella after a successful commission he had completed for the Catholic Press of Chicago in 1954 to paint the 14 "Stations of the Cross". These paintings were published in a 1954 special edition of the Bible and became very popular. Stahl then decided to paint a much larger, more dramatic set for the museum which would be for people of all faiths. Stahl included an untraditional 15th painting, "The Resurrection", so that the story would end on a positive note. These 6 x 9 foot oils would be housed in their own museum with a specially composed soundtrack narrative. Stahl spent over two and a half years painting the fifteen works. Six months were devotedto making studies, drawings and other oils before he began painting the fifteen large canvasses.

Stahl would later remark that although painting is always hard labor in the process of changing and reworking areas, the face of Christ always went well with what seemed to be only 30 or 40 brush strokes. "Surprisingly, the face of Christ always came off without a hitch".

Although he was not a traditionally religious man, Stahl put all of his life and resources into the creation of the museum and paintings. Yet, the large paintings were not insured against theft. There were two reasons for this. First, the cost of insurance was exorbitant and second, he just couldn't conceive that anyone "would steal a Stahl painting, let alone a giant, religious, Stahl painting".

The museum opened and was a great success. The national press gave the museum and the paintings wonderful reviews. Local and state politicians loved the museum and Dick Pope, the creator of Cypress Gardens called it, "The Jewel of Florida". Tourists from all over the world made a point to come to Sarasota to see the museum, and many came away deeply moved by the exhibit; some with tears in their eyes.

At the height of its popularity, in the predawn hours of April 16, 1969, the museum was broken into and the fifteen 6 x 9 foot masterworks plus 40 smaller works and studies in the inner gallery were stolen. Only the Stahl paintings that were on loan and insured by the lenders were left untouched. Those still left hanging were, "Mary Song of Praise", on loan from the National Baptist Sunday School Board; "The Seaman" from the Sarasota Art Association; "King David as a Boy", from Leonard Davidow of the Catholic Press; and "Moment of Silent Prayer" on loan from the national radio program, "Don McNeil's Breakfast Club".

McNeil called "Moment of Silent Prayer" the miracle painting as it was the only thing which survived the famous McCormack Place fire in Chicago. In that fire, an entire city block was burned to the ground. Yet this painting remained standing on its pedestal amidst the melted steel girders and rubble, untouched by fire or water. Here again, in the museum robbery, it was left untouched.

The thieves had done their homework. They knew what was insured and what was not and they had gone about the theft in a very professional manner. The large paintings were carefully taken out of their custom Heydnryk frames and then removed, tack by tack, from their wooden stretchers. The dozens of studies from the inner gallery were removed from their protective enclosures, leaving the floor littered with shattered glass and broken frames. The thieves took expensive crucifix jewelry from the display cases, yet left two 16 track MacIntosh sound systems worth thousands of dollars. Clearly, they were only after the uninsured Stahl paintings and knew, or were told, exactly how to go about getting them.

The next morning, sheriff's detective John Townsend and his partner Lee Johnson were on the scene. According to newspaper clippings, the FBI came the following day but claimed to be "not officially on the case". The only initial clue was from a paper boy and a waitress at a nearby restaurant who recalled seeing a white van parked in the empty museum lot during the night. In spite of the fact that the thieves had been in the building all night, no fingerprints or other physical evidence was reported found.

The national media called the robbery "The second largest art theft of the decade" with the value at 1.5 million dollars.

On the 19th, newspapers reported that the FBI was "watching airports and seaports". Special Agent Joe Santoiana, head of the Tampa FBI office was quoted as saying "the FBI was making inquires to determine if there was any indication that the paintings were taken out of state." Other articles reported that the FBI "wondered if they had jurisdiction to investigate" the $1.5 million robbery!

Townsend was quoted as saying that "there is strong evidence that the paintings may have been taken across state lines" but he would not tell the papers what evidence he had. On April 30, (only fifteen days after the robbery) the sheriff's detectives were stating that they were baffled and an FBI spokesman said they didn't know if the paintings were in the U.S. or not. On May 16 there were "no new developments" to report, and during the months of June and July nothing at all was reported in the papers.

It wasn't until August 1, that Townsend asked for public help in the case and on the 12th Stahl offered a reward of $5,000.00 for information in the case. Stahl was very concerned by the lack of action by law enforcement and that he was not being kept up to date as to what is being done. It appeared that the case was going nowhere.

But there would be one strange exception. Sometime after the robbery, a Roman Catholic priest in Ft. Lauderdale contacted the FBI and claimed that a mysterious stranger had approached him in his chapel and asked him to pass on a ransom demand for the paintings. The priest would describe the man as a thin, tall Hispanic. Stahl felt that the case would soon be solved. However, no other information would ever surface and no further ransom demands were ever made. According to Townsend, the priest had refused to give his name during the few calls made, and then stopped calling. Townsend showed little initiative and after the robbery and stopped coming to visit Stahl. The FBI appeared to abandon the case claiming that there were no leads to follow.

Judging by the redundant material printed by the newspapers in such an important and newsworthy case, there never seemed to be much action by law enforcement to recover the paintings. Based on the lack of news, the case appeared doomed during the first month it was reported.

By August, all was quiet. In spite of the silent treatment from investigators, Stahl still maintained faith in the sheriff's department and that, at least, the FBI had listed the art as stolen. It would be nearly 25 years later that Stahl's son, David, would discover the truth, that the paintings were never listed as stolen.

III. Twenty Years Later

Early in 1989, Mr. Robert Steinstream of the Steinstream Gallery in Boca Raton, Fl. called David Stahl and said that he had seen large religious paintings by Ben Stahl in storage at the Museum of Art in Ft. Lauderdale. David Stahl went with this information to the Sarasota office of the FBI and was horrified to find that the case had been dropped a year or two after the robbery and that law enforcement was claiming that the files had been destroyed. He also learned that the FBI had never listed the paintings as stolen, not even in their own National Stolen Art Registry!

Stahl went back to FBI Agent Kelly Thomas several times with photographs and hundreds of news clippings about the robbery. Thomas acted as though he was only going through the motions of being helpful. Stahl complained to the main office in Tampa about this but never got a response.

Agent Thomas did ask the FBI in Miami to check on Steinstream's story and they responded that the paintings were by Ben Stahl but were not from the museum robbery. The paintings at the Museum of Art were the set that was done for the Catholic Press during the early 1950's.

Angered and frustrated by the FBI's negligence over twenty-five years, Stahl contacted the Sarasota Sheriff's Department and was referred to Lt. Lovern, who told Stahl that the files on the museum theft had been destroyed in a fire two years after the robbery. By another sheriff's source, Stahl was told that the file had been destroyed by flooding. Both stories were looked into at the Sarasota County Property Appraiser's Office who had no record of any destruction of records ever taking place.

Months later, Howard Wheat at the Foster Harmon Gallery in Sarasota told Stahl that a Ms. Diane Lynn Chanako had come into the gallery in 1991 and told him that she had seen large, religious works by Ben Stahl on display in the Vatican. Stahl reported this to Agent Thomas who then interviewed her. Thomas later told Stahl that she recanted the entire story and that the large, religious works she saw were by Ben Shann.

Wheat would later tell Stahl that he was very surprised because Chanako had been adamant about what she had seen and that she knew Stahl's work. And although Shann was an accomplished artist who had been connected with the Famous Artists Schools, he was never known to paint religious themes, and certainly not the large religious works that Chanako reported seeing.

Stahl pressed his own investigation and provided Thomas with color photographs of the fifteen large paintings and the new information he had recently uncovered. Thomas assured Stahl on several occasions that he would file the photographs with the International Foundation for Art Research, Inc. (IFAR).

Stahl was somewhat consoled to hear from Thomas that they were finally listed. The IFAR List would have been a great help, even this long after the robbery. Stahl was counting on the fact that even if people didn't remember the artist's name, they would certainly remember fifteen 6 x 9 foot oil paintings. The IFAR photographs with their data would have been seen by countless galleries, art appraisers, auction houses, and collectors around the world.

But even this was not to be. Again, continued law enforcement negligence would prevail. During the first week of June, 1995, Stahl called IFAR for information and asked to check their records for any Stahl paintings being listed as stolen or missing. Stahl asked them for a letter with their response. On June 14, 1995 he received an answer from Ms. Kathleen Ferguson, Assistant to the Director (IFAR).

Ms. Ferguson replied:

"Thank you for contacting the Art Loss Register at IFAR. We are sorry to hear about the loss of the Ben Stahl 'Way of the Cross' paintings. No Ben Stahl painting has ever been reported to us as stolen or registered with our database".

Towards the end of May 1993, Stahl returned to Sarasota from California after completing a segment on the robbery for "Unsolved Mysteries". The night of his return he met an old friend, who during the late 1950's lived in the same town in Southern Spain with his family as the Stahls did. This friend learned of Stahl's investigation and became very interested in helping, because of the love and respect he had for Ben Stahl. As the friend knew the "types" in Sarasota who would know what went on in "underground" Sarasota back to the time of the robbery, he took it upon himself to delve into the investigation.

About two weeks later, the friend called Stahl to say he had uncovered important information. A local man had told him that his brother was in Sneeds Prison in Florida for bank robbery and knew the three men who "did the job".

On July 15, the friend introduced Stahl to another local man who went by the nickname "Gator". Gator told them that a man named "Travis Rauch" had told him that he had stolen the paintings. Rauch had also told his neighbor, that it was a "good score". Stahl learned from a confidential informant in the sheriff's department that Rauch was involved in high level criminal activities throughout the U.S. and had multiple aliases.

Still working with his friend and getting more and more leads, Stahl believed that he was "hot on the trail". However, without official access to law enforcement files or help from professionals, he knew he would eventually come to a dead end. What really bothered Stahl was that in every case, the informants, who by now trusted him, expressed their wonder why the Sheriff's Department and the FBI had never asked any questions of those individuals in 1969 who would have known what illegal activities where taking place. No one questioned by Stahl could recall even any rumors about friends being questioned by any branch of law enforcement.

The Investigation Today

In spite of Ben Stahl's international notoriety and the unique nature of the stolen art, no trace has ever been found. Both the FBI and local law enforcement claim that all files were destroyed, but refused to provide any feasible explanation for their disposal. While the FBI claimed to Stahl that they routinely destroy files even in unsolved cases, several retired agents confided that disposal is not normal and should be suspect. The Sheriff claimed that their files were destroyed by a fire or flood, yet there are no official county records of any flood or fire. In addition, the FBI never listed the works in their own National Stolen Art Database as is routinely done in a major theft.

Even though 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. 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 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:

  1. Why was Stahl's work never listed with the National Stolen Art Registry?
  2. Why was David Stahl told by the FBI and official FBI documents report that as of 1991 the works were listed with IFAR when IFAR is adamant that no listing was ever made?
  3. Why was there not an aggressive investigation by either the FBI or sheriff in 1969?

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. It is our hope that a visitor to the Virtual Museum of the Cross will recognize these valuable works and revitalize our efforts to finally solve the mystery.

The Stahl family has offered a significant reward for information leading to the recovery of "The Way of the Cross". Email: kathyc@delphi.com

Copyright © David Stahl, 1995


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