The crime has remained unsolved since it occurred in 1988; no arrests have been made, and none of the artworks has surfaced — until now.

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A team of sophisticated art thieves with ties to Bulgarian organized crime bypassed a burglar alarm nearly three decades ago and slipped into a sprawling 16th-floor apartment in one of Manhattan’s most exclusive neighborhoods.

They took their time in the empty apartment on East 57th Street near Sutton Place, selecting with gloved hands more than a dozen paintings by Chagall, Renoir, Picasso, Léger and Hopper, among others, along with antiquities from Peru and Costa Rica, jewelry and rugs.

Investigators said at the time that the thieves might have been in the apartment over several days, and left as they had entered — without a trace. The couple who had amassed the artworks over a lifetime of international travel were stunned to find their collection plundered when they returned from their annual two-month summer vacation in Aspen.

The crime has remained unsolved since it occurred in 1988; no arrests have been made, and none of the artworks has surfaced — until now.

On Thursday morning, federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., filed a complaint for return of one of the paintings, Marc Chagall’s 1911 “Othello and Desdemona,” which had languished for years in a Maryland attic. It’s an oil-on-canvas depicting Othello with a sword in his hand, gazing upon a reclining Desdemona.

The couple, Ernest S. Heller and Rose Heller, are long dead. Their lawyer said the apartment near the East River was a salon where artists and musicians — including, in the 1960s, Marc Chagall and composer Aaron Copland — would meet.

The artworks, which were valued at $750,000 at the time of the theft, would be worth millions in today’s art market.

The painting was discovered, in part, because an aging criminal, a terminally ill man who is 72 and who has long been involved with Bulgarian organized crime, wanted to make a clean breast of things before he dies, according to Marc Hess of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, the special agent investigating the case. The painting had been hidden in the criminal’s attic.

“One of the things he did say to me is that he was partially motivated by his imminent demise,” Hess said. “He talked about meeting his maker and trying to clear his conscience and make things right before he dies.”

The complaint sketches the outlines of a tale worthy of a novel. It also deepens the mystery of the carefully executed heist, shrouding the identities of two of the players, in part because the Art Crime Team, based in Washington, D.C., is still investigating the theft and trying to find more of the stolen art, according to the agents and prosecutor handling the case.

The document reveals that one of the thieves — who has a degree in fine arts and is identified only as Person 1 — had worked in the Hellers’ apartment building, and a few years after the theft had been arrested and convicted on federal charges that he committed similar crimes: stealing artworks from other apartment buildings where he worked.

The complaint tracks his ill-fated effort to sell the Chagall, complete with a no-honor-among-thieves falling out he had with a co-conspirator.

Person 1 became frustrated in his own efforts to unload the painting, and in the late 1980s or early 1990s, he sought the assistance of the man who is now 72 years old, who was to serve as a fence and who planned to sell it through his Bulgarian organized-crime connections.

The fence found a potential buyer. But then the man identified as Person 1 sought to cut him out of the deal. That’s when the fence stole the painting from Person 1 and stored it for years in the attic.

In about 2011, the fence tried to sell it to a gallery owner in Washington, D.C., according to the complaint. But the owner said he could not display the painting for sale without paperwork showing ownership or provenance, or a certificate from the Chagall committee, which controls the artist’s estate.

At that time, the gallery owner recognized the artwork as the same painting that had been brought to him in 1989 by an unidentified man, who also had no provenance or proof of ownership, and with whom the gallery owner also declined to do business.

Then, in January 2017, the 72-year-old man returned to the same gallery and again tried to sell the painting to the gallery owner, and the owner again refused, according to the complaint.

This time, the gallery owner suggested that the man with the painting contact law enforcement. He did so, calling the FBI, and later that month, he turned the painting over to agents.

The complaint and the attorney for the Hellers’ estate, Alan Scott, say that the estate intends to sell the painting at auction. The estate has agreed to repay the insurance company for the settlement and any related expenses, and donate the remainder of the proceeds to the residuary beneficiaries identified in the Hellers’ will: the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ colony that will receive 80 percent; and Columbia University and NYU Langone Medical Center, which will each receive 10 percent.

Ernest Heller was a jeweler and pearl importer who died in 1998 at 95 after a lifetime of expanding his inherited collection of paintings, jewelry, sculptures, silverware and carpets. Rose Heller died at 105 in 2003.

“They were the quintessential old married couple,” recalled Scott, who met the couple in the late 1980s before the theft. “They told it like it is to each other. And they got along well with everyone … and they had a very active social life.”

In a 1988 article reporting the $600,000 theft of all the items, Ernest Heller said he prized most “Othello and Desdemona,” one of Chagall’s early Paris works.

“I liked them all, but the Chagall was a very interesting one because it was a 1911 painting,” Heller said.

He said that he had inherited the painting from his father, Samuel Heller, who had purchased it directly from Chagall in Paris for $50 in 1913.

Chagall thought enough of “Othello and Desdemona” that he suggested the Hellers offer a Zurich art museum a chance to include it in a 1967 retrospective of his work. It was exhibited, and that June, Heller politely rebuffed a Basel gallery owner who asked whether the painting was for sale.

“Under the circumstances we would not like to part with it,” Heller wrote, citing its “great sentimental value” after almost 50 years in his family, according to correspondence kept by Art Recovery International, a private firm employed by the Hellers’ insurance company that recovers stolen and looted art.