Lost Masterpieces

How a Plane Crash Left a Picasso Painting Lost at Sea

When a flight crashed into the Atlantic, besides the terrible and huge loss of human life, the ocean also claimed much of the plane’s luggage, including a mysterious Picasso painting.

The evening of Sept. 2, 1998 was a peaceful one for the people living on the coast of Nova Scotia near the hamlet of Peggy’s Cove. The forecast predicted a chance of rain, and a thick cloud cover had started to roll in as the small community went about their nightly routines. Then at 10:31, a loud boom ripped across the sky.

“We heard a huge sound. Initially I thought it was thunder. Then we heard a smaller second rumble. It was a thunderous boom, but there was no rain, no lightning,” Sharon Hoagland, who was at home with her husband, told The New York Times.

Swissair Flight 111 had crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

Less than an hour after taking off from New York’s JFK airport bound for Geneva, Switzerland, the pilots began noticing smoke in the cockpit. They sent a distress signal and requested an emergency landing, while the passengers and crew prepared for the worst, donning oxygen masks and life jackets.

Less than 40 miles from the Halifax Airport, the pilot decided to quickly circle back over the Atlantic Ocean to dump fuel—full tanks can make landing dangerous—and there the plane went down, nose first.

Among the 229 people on board there were no survivors. It was one of the worst tragedies not attributed to terrorism in aviation history, with the ultimate cause determined to be an electrical fire caused by a faulty wire. The crash was made all the more devastating by the fact that the plane was less than 10 minutes away from its emergency landing site.

As the recovery effort, Operation Persistence, got underway, the cargo manifest revealed a shocking twist to the devastating loss. Along with 215 passengers and 14 crew members, Swissair Flight 111 had been transporting a spectacular—and spectacularly valuable—inventory of cargo.

Swissair was often used by bankers, jewelers, and businessmen to ferry goods between the U.S. and Switzerland. On this flight, in addition to 970 pounds of mail, there were 110 pounds of cash and gold, 14 pounds of watches and jewelry, and four pounds of diamonds.

But the most precious, purely material loss on board was a painting by Pablo Picasso.

An air of mystery surrounds the Picasso buried at sea with the unrecovered wreckage from Flight 111. While it is known that a 1963 Le Peintre was shipped as general (rather than valuable) cargo in the hold of the plane, Picasso is believed to have painted six pieces by this same name in 1963. Without recovering the work—which was a near-impossibility the moment it hit the water—it’s impossible to determine for certain which one it is.

“Usually those kind of paintings are sent in some kind of wooden construction that is really not a shockproof container,” Urs Peter Naef, a spokesperson for Swissair told the The New York Times shortly after the crash. “We don’t know for sure but we assume that because of the heavy impact it was probably destroyed.”

It is widely believed that this piece was the Le Peintre sold in 1996 by Sotheby’s in London for $867,000, and that it was valued at nearly $1.5 million at the time that it was lost.

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If that is, in fact, the case, this Picasso was a 36-inch tall canvas that portrayed a bearded painter in the midst of creating his next work, and it was painted primarily in shades of blue, black, and white. If there is any consolation to the loss of a masterpiece, it’s that critics did not consider this painting one of Picasso’s best.

In addition to the exact identity of the painting, the identities of the piece’s owner and recipient have never been revealed, although most think it was destined for a private collection in Europe.

The recovery effort was swift and thorough. Immediately following the crash, locals jumped into their boats and headed to the scene. They were quickly joined by professional rescue teams from Canada and the U.S. For weeks, a massive recovery effort pulled broken bits of airplane and human remains from the bottom of the ocean floor. Over 98 percent of the aircraft and most of the remains were recovered, along with 16 tons of cargo.

But over $500 million worth of valuables—including all of the diamonds—are still missing. And the only trace that remained of Picasso’s Le Peintre was a 20-centimeter-square scrap of canvas found floating in the wreckage.

Over 40 years after his death, Picasso remains one of the most popular artists in the world. Partly due to the genius of his work, and partly due to its sheer quantity (Picasso has the distinction of being one of the most prolific painters of all time), his work continuous to be the target of thefts, forgeries, and other nefarious art crimes.

But only one Pablo Picasso is known to be lost at sea. A 1963 Le Peintre remains sunk in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean—inevitably lost to the vagaries and violence of nature—surrounded by diamonds, gold, and the echoes of a terrible tragedy.