Authorities say they think the drawing was simply lifted off its easel at a hotel.
A late-night tip to Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies led to the return of a very expensive piece of art.
Rembrandt's "The Judgment" was found in Encino Monday night after being stolen from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Marina del Rey. The drawing was found in an office by an assistant pastor at Saint Nicholas Episcopal Church in Encino, said the Rev. Michael Cooper.
Investigators said an assistant priest discovered the Rembrandt in the office, and realized it was the stolen etching mentioned in news reports.
Det. Clarence Williams, wearing white gloves, held the drawing during a Tuesday morning news conference at the sheriff's department.
"It appears they took it off the easel," said Williams. "They realized it's going to be very hard to sell because of coverage of this incident."
Williams said the drawing does not appear to be damaged. The drawing was probably dropped off at the church, sheriff's department Steve Whitmore said.
"The object has been retrieved," said Whitmore. "The next step is how did the object get from Point A to Point B?"
Investigators had been studying surveillance video to come up with their own sketch of the suspect before the art was sold on the black market. No need now -- the owner of the sketch went with detectives to pick it up and verify it as the original.
Beverly Hills art dealer Kevin Anderson said while there is a black market for stolen art work, it’s pretty tough to break into. On top of that, he said, the thief will have a very difficult time unloading it.
“They don’t know what they’re going to do with the drawing… they’ll find out very quickly they can’t sell it because they’re going to get caught,” said Anderson.
The LA county sheriff’s department said the drawing by the Dutch master is worth $250,000.
It was part of a private exhibit in the lobby of the hotel. Investigators believe someone may have swiped it during a 15-minute window, while the curator was distracted by a hotel guest who appeared to want to make a purchase.
Anderson said photos of stolen works of art are immediately logged on an art loss registry web site. By doing this, dealers are alerted to be on the lookout.
High end, experienced art thieves usually target insurance companies and trade the stolen art for much less than its value.
“The art thieves know they can’t resell the painting but they’ll basically hold the painting hostage to the insurance company. Saying ‘listen, we know you have this work insured at five million dollars. Give us a million in a paper bag and the painting will show up on the corner at the courthouse’ kind of thing,” said Anderson.
Anderson said less experienced thieves who can’t sell stolen pieces on the black market may hand off the art to another criminal.
“The drawing enters a kind of grey market where it’s traded among low level criminals for drugs, money and IOU’s… and finally it surfaces usually,” said Anderson.
Investigators said Rembrandt work is often targeted by thieves. About 81 Rembrandt pieces of art have been stolen over the past century.