I’ll admit to a somewhat maudlin fascination of stories about stolen artwork. The number of books and movies out about the subject indicates that other people have the same interest. Did you see The Monuments Men about the hidden masterpieces and recovery after WWII? Or Woman in Gold? Both were based on true stories. Or Priceless by Robert K. Wittman or Stealing Rembrandts by Anthony Amore? Or The Rockwell Heist by Bruce Rubenstein? Again, true stories. Of course, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is a fictionalized account of an art theft but immensely popular.
Most of us will never encounter a circumstance of art theft. As a director of a gallery and art center for many years, we never had an issue with stolen artwork although we weren’t displaying Rembrandts either.
However, this is a tale about a real art theft. Or two or three. All involving myself.
The first painting I had stolen was from a public building in 1994. I had an exhibit in the Chamber of Commerce building in downtown Indianapolis. This was the second time that I had exhibited there. So you can imagine my surprise when I got up one morning and found a message from a Sargent somebody or other from the Indianapolis Police Department with a request to call him back about some stolen artwork. Of course, he was off duty when I called so I called the organizers of the exhibit at the Chamber. I had a few dozen paintings there so I thought it was probably one of the smaller pieces. To my surprise, I learned that it was the largest piece I had in the show.
Later that evening, the Sargent called me back. After we discussed the theft – I never saw the exhibit on display since I just dropped it off at the loading dock and picked it up a month later – I asked how someone could steal such a large painting, through a revolving door no less! Didn’t the security guard run after the thief? The Sargent chuckled and remarked that the guard probably wasn’t running too many marathons. (The building was open at night because the lobby held an ATM.)
The painting, Scareboy, was an amusing watercolor painting of the scarecrow that I had created out of my son’s Doctor Denton’s with a Mickey Mouse hat. I guess someone really liked it, just not enough to pay for it. (The Chamber did reimburse my loss.)
Another case of stolen artwork was at the Broad Ripple Art Fair, also in Indianapolis. This was a very nice fair with a fence and security. The theft occurred as a mother and her son distracted me by asking a question about a painting in the back of my booth. When I went back into the booth, two paintings were missing. These were small vegetable works in watercolor with pen and ink. At the time, I was offering about forty-five different fruits and vegetables. (And still do in my Etsy shop.) They were very popular, all original, not prints. Apparently a partner was snatching the work while I was being distracted. To add injury to insult, when I tried to report this to the fair officials, I was directed to the phone in the office to file a police report (this was before cellphones.) And I later got blackballed from the fair since I had left my booth early to make the phone call. Humph!
The team working to distract the artist or booth operator is not a novel operation. I had a couple use their dog (the guy practically pushed it into my face for me to pet) while the gal was shoving packaged cards into the pockets of her coat. Sigh.
The interesting thing is, that artwork is such a personal thing. People either like it or they don’t. At my level, I’m hardly a superstar in the art scene and my paintings are modestly priced. But for famous artists, thieves often forget to think ahead about what they will actually do with the masterpieces after they steal them. A famous painting is very hot and not easily sold on the open market. Some are held for ransom. Some are sold to the underworld/undercover market. Eventually they come to surface somewhere.
But, hey, if anyone out there sees my Scareboy, just know that he belongs at home.