The theft in October of an etching by Jasper Johns from an exhibit at the Art Institute of Southern California in Laguna Beach remains unsolved.
"Ale Cans" was removed from the second-floor Reynolds Gallery, reportedly by a hefty man in a black trench coat, on Oct. 22--a scant 3 weeks before Johns' 1959 painting "False Start" fetched $17.05 million at Sotheby's in New York, the highest auction price ever paid for a contemporary work.
Valued at $4,500 before the auction, the 1967 print from the Lorrin and Deane Wong Collection is now worth about $8,000, according to a more recent appraisal commissioned by the Wongs. Dickering over the amount the Wongs are to receive in the theft has delayed an insurance settlement, according to institute gallery director Nancy Mooslin.
"It was an intelligent theft," Mooslin said. "They certainly knew what they were coming for."
Mooslin gave police this account: The thief was accompanied by a woman who remained in the first-floor Ettinger Gallery while he went upstairs. The young student on guard duty that Saturday afternoon followed the man upstairs but turned his back for a moment, and when he looked again, the print was gone. Fearing that the thief was armed, the student did not challenge the couple, allowing them to walk through the front door and to drive away in a new black Ford Ranger pickup truck with no license plates.
Laguna Beach Police Sgt. Ray Lardie said the case is still open.
"We haven't been able to develop leads or suspects," he said.
Directly after the theft, security latches were placed on smaller works in the exhibition, a practice that Mooslin said the gallery will continue. A few works not hung in "secure" areas were removed from the exhibition, which continued as scheduled through Nov. 18, and alarms were added to two back doors.
"The Wongs have been wonderful about it," Mooslin said. "(The print) had real sentimental value for them; it is one of the first pieces they purchased. And now, of course, they stand to lose quite a bit of appreciation. We're just trying to have it settled in a really fair way."
Lorrin Wong, who is chief financial officer at Infotec Development Inc. in Santa Ana, said he had not "seriously contemplated" the possibility of theft from the exhibit.
"My concern was more that of damage," he said. "I can't picture people going into art galleries stealing things. It was so blatant. . . . I suppose in some bizarre way it's flattery of some sort."
Wong added that he will not even think about putting such a large selection of his collection on public view again "for quite some time" but that he and his wife are still willing to lend individual works to exhibitions, although they would be "concerned about lending smaller pieces."
Institute director William Otton said his gallery is "working closely with our insurance agent and with local police on making sure (something like this) won't happen again.
"We had a guard on duty. We have an emergency system in place. . . . We have the same security system that we have at the (Laguna Art) museum. It's not that we weren't prepared."
Asked whether the theft has changed future exhibition plans at the gallery, where the exhibition program was greatly upgraded last year, Otton said: "We're carefully reviewing the kind of work we can have here and the risks we can take at this point. (But) we are not saying no to anything at the moment."