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2 Valley Men Held in Theft of 9 Masterpieces

August 11, 1993|MICHAEL CONNELLY and LESLIE BERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Nine works by masters of modern art--including Picasso, Degas and Chagall--valued at $9 million were seized by police and FBI agents Tuesday and two San Fernando Valley men were arrested, a year after the uninsured masterpieces were stolen from a Northridge storage warehouse.

In 2 a.m. raids, squads of agents and police arrested Peter MacKenzie, a 43-year-old carpenter, at his Chatsworth home on suspicion of burglary, and Alan R. McArthur, 37, an electrician, at his Granada Hills home on suspicion of receiving stolen property. Both were being held in lieu of $500,000 bail.

Police found eight of the stolen paintings--including a work by Picasso worth an estimated $5 million--hidden in a wall in MacKenzie's $400-a-month ranch house. The ninth painting was found wrapped in a dirty pillowcase and leaning against a bureau in McArthur's bedroom.

Authorities said little about what led them to the two suspects, but proudly displayed the paintings--all but one in gilded frames--at a press conference Tuesday. None of the paintings were damaged, they said.

"We made a total recovery," Los Angeles Police Department Detective Bill Martin said. "As far as burglaries go, this was one of the most major of all time."

The paintings were reported stolen Feb. 5, 1992, when Eve Weisager, 85, of Van Nuys discovered them missing from a nondescript 10-by-12-foot room in a Public Storage warehouse in the 9300 block of Shirley Avenue.

Weisager said Tuesday she was "delighted" by the paintings' recovery.

"I couldn't be happier," she said. "I thought I'd never see them again and was just thinking a couple nights ago, 'I'll probably never see them again as long as I live, and how much longer can I live?' "

After the burglary was reported, police said there was no sign of forced entry to the storage room and that they were investigating the possibility that the theft was an inside job.

On Tuesday, MacKenzie's landlord and a neighbor said he worked part-time as a janitor for Public Storage. Police said they were attempting to confirm his employment there, and a woman at the Public Storage warehouse where the theft occurred refused to comment on the case.

The FBI joined the investigation last year on the presumption that the paintings would be moved across state lines to be sold by the thieves. But the paintings apparently never went more than a few miles from the storage locker.

"Actually, they have been holding the paintings, waiting for this to cool down," said Martin, an art crime expert.

John Morley, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles office, said the arrests were spawned by a tip from an informant who pointed them in the direction of two individuals who were attempting to sell valuable paintings. They were later identified as MacKenzie and McArthur. At one point, Morley said, "our agents observed an individual carrying what clearly appeared to be a painting" into McArthur's house.

FBI agents obtained search warrants for both suspects' homes and moved in Tuesday morning. Martin said the law officers were searching MacKenzie's home for nearly an hour before an FBI agent spotted screws holding sheet rock in place in a bedroom. The agent became suspicious because sheet rock is usually installed with nails. The agents removed the sheet and found eight paintings.

"They were fitted like puzzle pieces in the wall," FBI Agent Virginia Curry said. "The Picasso was wrapped in tissue. Some of the others were in bubble wrap. One of them wasn't wrapped at all."

The FBI identified the recovered masterpieces as "The Party" by Pablo Picasso; "The Balleteuse Fixing Her Shoe" by Edgar Degas; "Flowers on a Window Sill" by Marc Chagall; "Moroccan Chief" by Eugene Delacroix; "Head and Shoulders of a Young Woman" by Amedeo Modigliani; "Tonton, Le Chien de Rajane" by Jean Baldini; "Well in a Spanish Courtyard" by Andre Derain; "Woman Overlooking Garden Through Window" by Louis Valtat; and "Circus Scene" by Chaim Soutine.

Weisager said Tuesday that she had received the paintings from her sister several years ago. She said she and her sister, whom she described as a very wealthy woman, used to go to art auctions together in New York and Paris. Her sister gave her the paintings from her large collection, she said.

But Weisager said she decided to put the paintings in the storage facility 13 years ago because she didn't have room for them in her small apartment and had thought the storage facility would be the safest place.

"It was supposed to have security and all of that," she said. "But I don't know what kind of security they have there."

MacKenzie was a carpenter who had had trouble finding work in recent years and took a part-time job clearing out storage rooms for Public Storage, according to his landlord, Sharon Friedman, who lives in a house on the front of a one-acre property where MacKenzie rented a smaller house.

"I know he worked for Public Storage because I saw the checks when they came in the mail," Friedman said.

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