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Swift L.A. art heist claims couple's prized collection

A dozen paintings are stolen in Encino while the owners are home.

September 10, 2008|Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Andrew Blankstein and Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writers

The thief, or thieves, was either very smart or very, very lucky.

The side door of the home in the hills of Encino was unlocked on the Saturday morning in late August. The elderly owners were in a back room, otherwise occupied. The maid had stepped out.

So the thief stepped in -- and made quick work of the wealthy real estate investors' multimillion-dollar art collection. Marc Chagall's "Les Paysans," gone. Diego Rivera's "Mexican Peasant," a blank spot on the wall. Arshile Gorky's "Cubist Still Life," ditto.

By the time the maid returned about an hour later, at least a dozen artworks -- frames and all -- had been stripped from the home. A collection that took more than half a century to compile was dismantled in less than 60 minutes. The anti-theft system, for whatever reason, did not prevent the heist.

"Somebody did this very quickly," said Det. Donald Hrycyk of the Los Angeles Police Department's art theft detail.

Both art experts and authorities described the art theft as one of the largest in Los Angeles history. The crime, which occurred Aug. 23 but was announced Tuesday, had the art world buzzing.

Police announced a $200,000 reward for information leading to the paintings' return. But they would not elaborate on where the money came from, saying only that it was not a government source. The LAPD statement on the incident referred to a single "thief," but officials said they are not sure whether it was a lone suspect or a group.

They have not released the victims' names or the crime's location. And they are struggling to put together a description of the suspect to help narrow their search for the paintings.

"We try to gauge the sophistication of the thief, because it may give us an indication of whether [the artwork] will show up at a swap meet or a thrift shop," said Hrycyk, who has been investigating art thieves for 14 years. "Somebody may sit on it for a decade before trying to sell it overseas."

Each painting is worth at least six figures, some upward of $1 million, said Richard Rice, a senior consultant for 21 years at Gallerie Michael on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, and the collection was on par with those of A-list Hollywood celebrities.

The stolen artworks include Emil Nolde's "Figur mit Hund" (Figure With Dog), 1912; Lyonel Feininger's "Fin de Seance," 1910; Chaim Soutine's "La Vieille Dame au Chien" (Old Woman with Dog), 1919; Soutine's "La Femme en Rouge" (Woman in Red), 1926; Kees van Dongen's "Alicia Alanova," 1933; and Hans Hofmann's Untitled (Blue Bottle), 1947, authorities said.

"A collection of this quality that is so specialized -- these people had a passion," Rice said. "They were collecting artwork that was to the left of center. It wasn't mainstream. Most people, if they have wealth and taste, they collect things that are in the mainstream: Renoir, Degas, maybe Salvador Dali."

Rice called the collection "a rarefied group only sold at a small clique of galleries" in New York, London, Vienna, Paris, Zurich or Geneva. "What these people collected was almost a subculture of the art world," he said.

Unlike their counterparts in New York, Rice said, Los Angeles collectors are more private. With a few exceptions, such as real estate mogul Eli Broad, L.A. collectors tend not to publicize, lend or show their paintings.

"These are not people who open up their doors and allow the public to come in," Rice said. "It's just shocking that something like this would happen. I was saddened that someone could build such a collection and in a matter of minutes it could be gone."

The big question is what will happen to the stolen art next. Because of the pieces' estimated worth, the works will be difficult to sell, said the LAPD's Hrycyk. Unlike cheaper artwork, he said, "when you get into this range, most people who want to buy art want to know the provenance of the piece."

If potential customers or auction houses check the artworks' history, they will find that Hrycyk flagged all of them as stolen in the Art Loss Register and in the FBI and Interpol stolen art files.

The FBI estimates that art theft is a $6-billion-a-year global industry. Chris Calarco, a supervisor with the agency's L.A. office, said that art crimes are on the rise and that the recovery rate is less than 5%.

The Art Loss Register lists 177,000 missing or stolen collectibles, and of those, 491 are from California. Most come from residences (236) compared to art galleries and other businesses (120), in keeping with national trends.

The most frequently stolen artist: Picasso, mainly because his name and styles are so famous, said Christopher A. Marinello, executive director and general counsel for the Art Loss Register in an interview from the register's London office.

But thieves also target paintings by lesser-known artists, thinking they will be easier to sell, Marinello said. He called the paintings taken from Encino last month "a very high-end collection."

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